Friday, December 15, 2017

Album Review: 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 40th Anniversary Remastered Edition' (2017)

In the fall of 1977, Arista Records (a now defunct label owned by Sony Music Entertainment) released Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, a 10-track selection of cues and themes composed by John Williams for Steven Spielberg's eponymous "humans meet aliens" UFO film.

Arista released the album as a single-disc vinyl LP, as well as on cassette and eight-track tape. It also released the disco version of "Theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind" on a 7-inch single, which was included as a bonus on the vinyl release. The theme, if memory serves, was incorporated into the tape editions as a bonus track; this was also done with the 1990 compact disc distributed by Varese Sarabande Records under license by the original label.

Composer John Williams and director Steven Spielberg began working on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (CE3K) as early as 1975, shortly after Jaws (the duo's second collaboration) was completed. The most important element, Spielberg told Williams, was that "music would be the means through which humanity makes first contact with extra-terrestrials."

According to Mike Montessino's liner notes to the 40th Anniversary expanded soundtrack from CE3K:

It was a dream project for any film composer, as well as a unique challenge. The result remains, even four decades later, one of Williams' most ambitious works and, by his own admission, one of his most creatively satisfying. "I loved working on Close Encounters because I loved the picture," he said upon its conclusion in 1977. "The idea of contact with life that we know is out there in some form is an irresistible attraction for any artist working on any medium.

Williams' original concept for the Arista soundtrack album was to release it as "a 74-minute double LP, much like his successful Star Wars album earlier that same year." However, the record label decided to pare the material down and released the album as a single two-sided LP, with the 7-inch single of the disco "Theme from CE3K" tossed in for good measure. (This was a poor decision on Arista's part; as Montessino writes in the liner notes to the expanded edition re-release, "the 2-LP release would have included almost all the music heard in the film, including [like the released album] cues that were partially used as well as some early alternate versions.")

Album cover art from Arista's single LP Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. (C) 1977 Arista Records

The 1977 album (LP, cassette, and eight-track) and subsequent compact disc consist of the following selections:

  1. Main Title and Mountain Visions
  2. Nocturnal Pursuit
  3. The Abduction of Barry
  4. I Can't Believe It's Real
  5. Climbing Devil's Tower
  6. The Arrival of Sky Harbor
  7. Night Siege
  8. The Conversation
  9. The Appearance of the Visitors
  10. Resolution and End Title
  11. Theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (disco version): 7-inch single record as an extra inside the vinyl LP; included as a bonus track on the tape and compact disc editions

As is the case with most soundtrack albums (including Walt Disney Records' most recent Star Wars releases, including The Force Awakens, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and 2017's The Last Jedi,  the 1977 album was, essentially, a "greatest hits" collection rather than a comprehensive representation of the complete score. Whether this is because recording companies believe that listeners have short attention spans or that longer albums (which often require two discs) are a huge gamble that's not worth the expense or risk, I have no idea. What I do know, though, is that most original soundtrack albums from movies or TV shows all seem to follow this trend; only rarely do recording companies release "expanded" or "complete" scores on any format.

(C) 1998 Arista Records/Sony Music Entertainment

 In 1998, following the 20th Anniversary re-release of CE3K in its third and definitive "Director's Edition," Arista (which closed down in 2001) produced a Collector's Edition which presented Williams' score in (mostly) chronological order. In addition to the 10 tracks from the 1977 record, Arista added 13 previously unreleased cues and expanded several of the familiar ones. In addition, several tracks were renamed for clarity's sake. For instance, The Conversation became The Dialogue, while The Abduction of Barry became Barry's Kidnapping.

Produced by Mike Montessino, the producer and sound engineer behind other "expanded editions" of John Williams scores, including Empire of the Sun, Jaws, Jurassic Park, AI: Artificial Intelligence, and 1941, the 1998 extended edition is also the centerpiece of  La-Land Records' 40th Anniversary Remastered Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Music by John Williams.

(C)2017 La-La Land Records/Arista Records/Sony Music Entertainment

Released in November 2017 as a limited edition (only 5000 units were made), the 40th Anniversary Remastered Edition is a two-disc collection of cues that were used for the various versions of CE3K, including the 1977 theatrical release and the studio-mandated Special Edition of 1980; since that version of the film included new footage that showed the interior of the mother ship, John Williams composed Inside, a track recorded at Symphony Hall in Boston in June of 1980.

Disc One is a digitally remastered re-release of the 1998 Expanded Edition album; Disc Two is a longer (31-track) disc comprised of familiar tracks heard on Disc One, unused alternate versions that were previously unreleased, and cues from the film (including the track Inside that I mentioned earlier). Both discs present the tracks in roughly chronological order, reflecting their appearance in Spielberg's film.

My Take

Remarkably, Williams was working on the original Star Wars at virtually the same time as Close Encounters, doing most of the composing in early 1977 at  his office at 20th Century Fox. While both scores sweep the listener away with epic adventure, action, and mystery, they are, like the films themselves, nothing alike, affirming what Spielberg has called Williams' "chameleon-like" ability to adapt styles to suit the needs of a particular project. - Mike Montessino in the essay "The Gift of Music and Light"

The music of CE3K is, indeed, quite different from Star Wars' 19th Century Romantic era style. If you're not familiar with the vast musical output of John Williams for the motion picture and TV industry, the musical styles of Close Encounters and Star Wars are so dissimilar that you wouldn't suspect that they were both written by the same composer.

As Williams himself noted nearly 40 years ago, "Close Encounters is more atmospheric and impressionistic, more abstract, and certainly less romantic than Star Wars. It strikes me as the exact opposite. I like to think of Star Wars as the future, with sights heretofore unseen; the music should be a stabilizing element, emotionally familiar.  Close Encounters, however, is real, not fantastic to our eyes; it takes place in the here and now, not the distant future. The whole object of Steven Spielberg's film is to create a sense of credibility, and therefore the music takes the opposite course - more abstract and futuristic."

In other words, if the music of Star Wars evokes the works of Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, and even Ludwig von Beethoven, Williams' score for Close Encounters is reminiscent of such 20th Century abstract composers as Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Striabin. The musical cues, especially those of CE3K's first two acts (when Spielberg keeps the audience guessing as to whether the film's aliens are friendly or - as in the 1950s B-movies - invaders from space) tend to be atonal, eerie, and often in the lower register. 

To illustrate Williams' deliberate use of musical misdirection: in the scenes when Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is either chasing UFOs in his electric lineman's truck or heading toward Devil's Tower in Wyoming, the composer uses "a descending pair of four-note phrases that Williams associated with the character." As Montessino explains in the liner notes for the 40th Anniversary Remastered Edition, "The theme is suggestive of the well-known Dies irae ("Day of [God's] Wrath) plainchant melody associated with the Catholic requiem mass. In Close Encounters, Williams uses it for tense or urgent moments...."

Obviously, any piece of music associated with the wrath of God - and Dies irae definitely counts as such - sounds ominous, even frightening (it's also used in the main title of The Shining). This fits with Spielberg's intent to fool a first-time viewer of CE3K into thinking that the aliens in this movie may not be coming in peace. 

Of course, Spielberg is also reminding the viewer that even though the alien visitors don't mean any harm, we Earthlings are by nature rather suspicious, even paranoid beings. Most of us, I'm sure, are not psychologically ready for a close encounter of the first kind (visual sighting) with a real extra-terrestrial, much less a close encounter of the third kind (contact). Well, Spielberg clearly didn't think that a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America (especially its government) was remotely ready for a first-contact situation with interstellar visitors and their flying saucers. 

Williams' music, as presented in Spielberg's film and on this album, gradually progresses from atonal eeriness to more familiar melodic themes once the aliens' motives prove to be benign. The cues still don't resemble Star Wars' Romantic era leitmotivs or recognizable "songs," but they now sound more mellow and wondrous, especially after the Dialogue, the 4-minute, 28 second track that features the famous five-note motif known as "Theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

What do I mean by mellow and wondrous? Well, for instance, both Resolution and End Titles and Inside feature excerpts from Ned Washington and Leigh Harline's "When You Wish Upon a Star," the Oscar-winning song from Walt Disney Pictures' classic Pinocchio. The interpolated melody is heard briefly in the former track; a more complete choral performance is heard in Inside, a cue Williams composed in 1980 for that year's Special Edition re-release.

These two tracks are used - successfully - to convey Roy Neary's - and the audience's - sense of childlike wonder when he is chosen to be humanity's ambassador to the aliens and invited to board the mothership at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Along with the rest of the score, these two tracks by John Williams constitute, in short, a wonderful gift of music and light.  

Disc One: Extended Soundtrack Presentation
  1. Main Title and the Vision
  2. Navy Planes
  3. Lost Squadron
  4. Trucking
  5. Into the Tunnel and Chasing UFOs
  6. Crescendo Summit
  7. False Alarm and The Helicopter
  8. Barry's Kidnapping
  9. Forming the Mountain
  10. TV Reveals/Across Country
  11. The Mountain
  12. The Cover Up and Base Camp
  13. The Escape
  14. Climbing the Mountain
  15. Outstretched Hands
  16. The Light Show
  17. Barnstorming
  18. The Mothership
  19. The Dialogue
  20. The Returnees
  21. The Appearance of the Visitors
  22. Contact
  23. End Titles
Disc Two: Alternates and Additional Music

  1. Main Title
  2. Roy's First Encounter
  3. Encounter at Crescendo Summit
  4. Chasing UFOs
  5. Watching the Skies
  6. Vision Takes Shape
  7. Another Vision
  8. False Alarm
  9. The Abduction of Barry
  10. The Cover-up
  11. TV Reveals
  12. Roy and Jillian on the Road
  13. I Can't Believe It's Real
  14. Across the Fields
  15. Stars and Trucks
  16. Who Are You People?
  17. The Escape (Alternate)
  18. Climbing Devil's Tower
  19. Dark Side of the Moon
  20. The Approach
  21. Night Siege
  22. The Conversation
  23. Inside
  24. Contact (Alternate)
  25. Eleventh Commandment
  26. TV Western
  27. Lava Flow
  28. The Five Tones
  29. Advance Scout Greeting
  30. The Dialogue (Early Version)
  31. Resolution and End Titles

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Talkin' Politics: My reply to 'Non-Trump Voters: What would Trump have to do to get your vote in the 2020 election?'

Hi, there.
Uh, okay. So today’s question is: For those who didn’t vote for Trump, what would Trump have to do to get your vote in the 2020 election?
First, you have to understand that the people who didn’t vote for Trump in ’16 don’t make up a huge monolithic bloc or live in a leftist, anti-American mythical land called Utopia. (Or, as the most aggressive of Trump supporters might put it, Libtardia.) I can’t speak for every anti-Trump voter, I can only speak for myself, although I’m sure that my reasons for not voting from the current President are not too different from other non-Trump voters.

Photo by Michael Stewart/Getty Images

Second, understand this: Donald J. Trump is 71 years old (as of December 12, 2017). As such, he is older than the late President Ronald W. Reagan at this point in his first term. People at that age simply do not change their personalities, philosophies of life, political views, or their agendas. These are pretty much set in stone and can’t easily be altered unless a person is intelligent and self-aware enough to realize that he or she must change course.
As a 71-year-old man of power and privilege, President Trump is not a person who is capable of doing what one might call a full one-eighty degree turn as far as his view of the world is concerned. He’s not smart enough to understand where he has gone wrong as a newly-minted politician, and he is certainly not honest enough to admit that he made a “yuge” mistake in running for the Presidency. And because he thrives on the loyalty and adulation of his fans (the MAGA crowd, as I call them), he would not dare incur their wrath by reversing course on the following planks of the extreme right’s platform:
  • Repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act
  • The “wall on the Mexican border”
  • Refusing to participate in climate change-related accords
  • Lowering taxes for the wealthy
  • Fostering a jingoistic “America First” foreign policy
  • Tolerating and even encouraging white supremacists and white nationalists
  • Supporting the “birther conspiracy” that claims, falsely, that former President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.
  • Undoing everything the 44th President accomplished in his eight-years in the White House
  • Waging a war against traditional media outlets and calling any reporting that he doesn’t like “fake news”
U.S. State Department Photo

I didn’t vote against Trump because I am a Clinton loyalist. I’m not. She’s a remarkable woman - a former First Lady who was the first member of that grand sorority to run for and win a seat in the Senate (representing the great state of New York), and later became President Obama’s first Secretary of State. But rightly or wrongly, she has a lot of detractors and can often come off as just another ambitious politician with ideas that many conservatives find unpalatable.
I also don’t believe any of the crazy conspiracies that the Republicans invented about Mrs. Clinton as long ago as the 1992 campaign, but she doesn’t come across as America’s answer to Angela Merkel.
Nevertheless, I voted for Hillary Clinton not just because I thought she was the better candidate, but because I don’t like Trump.
I did, however, vote against Trump because I do not like him on any level.
So my vote was a two-fer: For Clinton and against Trump.
So, let’s go over the list of why I do not like Trump. You know, so there are no misunderstandings:
I do not like him as a public speaker.
I do not like him as a businessman.
I do not like him as a TV personality.
I do not like him as a candidate.
I do not like him as a President.
I do not like him as a human being.
Not one bit.
So, basically, to answer the question “For those who didn’t vote for Trump, what would Trump have to do to get your vote in the 2020 election?” I can only say this.
Nothing. Nothing at all. There’s no way on Earth that Trump can get my vote in the next election.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Talkin' Politics: My answer to 'Why can't America return to the good old days of the Fifties?'

How can we return American society to the 1950s, when people were more politically incorrect?
You can’t. Time, societies, and history only go forward in time, not backward.

The idealized 1950s

Extreme conservatives who also happen to be white, religious (often Evangelical Protestants but, really, from any denomination) that miss the “good ol’ days” seem to be asking this, not just on Quora, but in other social media and in “real life” conversations.
On the surface, asking “How can we return American society to the ‘50s, when people were more politically incorrect?” seems rather innocent enough, evoking nostalgia for an era where life seemed idyllic.
Idyllic, that is, if you were a white person, especially a white male person, with strong religious beliefs and staunchly conservative political views.
What the questioner is really asking, though, is this:
Why can’t we return American society to a period of history when it was:
  • Okay to discriminate against blacks (Negroes, in the parlance of the day)
  • Okay to segregate blacks from the rest of the community (especially in the Deep South)
  • Okay to deny blacks the right to vote in local, state, or national elections
  • Okay to discriminate (openly and subtly) against Jews
  • Okay to keep women submissive and to only allow them to seek jobs in professions that were traditionally geared for the “fairer sex,” i.e. teachers, secretaries, health care (mostly as nurses), or simply stay home and be housewives
  • Okay to discriminate against homosexuals
  • Okay to tell malicious jokes about minorities
  • Okay to discriminate against foreigners
  • Okay to label non-comformists, liberals, progressives, and civil rights advocates as “Communist”
  • Okay to express white supremacist views without being censured by one’s peers
  • Okay to create an atmosphere of paranoia and fear

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Talking About History: How 'reality TV' killed The History Channel

How did A&E Network's History, aka The History Channel, fall into disrepute with history buffs, historians, and TV critics?

Essentially, History, which was originally named The History Channel, followed the same path as its parent network, A&E.
It was seduced by television’s version of the dark side of the Force: “reality programming.”  And it was consumed by it.
First, though, a little history about, well, History.
Back in the 1990s, A&E started out as the Arts and Entertainment cable channel. I didn’t watch it much back then, but it used to be the “go to” channel for viewers who wanted to see programs about fine arts, music, travel to exotic places, and documentaries.
Eventually, as it often happens with cable channels, the owners of A&E, which include ABC and Hearst, decided to create a separate channel devoted to historical content, primarily documentaries. And in an inspired burst of creativity, A&E named the spin-off “The History Channel.”
Although the channel aired programming about other historical eras and/or topics, the History Channel seemed to focus on documentaries about World War II. Viewers could expect to watch such shows as Great Blunders of World War II, The Last Secrets of the Axis, Okinawa: The Last Battle, and reruns of Crusade in Europe, Victory at Sea, and even The World at War.
Not surprisingly, wags tagged the History Channel as “The Hitlery Channel.”
Then, in the 2000s, as broadcast networks saw that “reality shows” such as Survivor, Big Brother, The Apprentice, and Dancing with the Stars garnered huge ratings and were cheaper to produce than scripted sitcoms and dramas, the History Channel’s programmers decided that if that’s what it took to boost ratings, then they, too, would go down the “quicker, more seductive” path.
Now, you have to understand that as fascinating as history is for some individuals, the sad reality is that there are more television viewers who are bored by the subject than viewers who love it. Either it reminds them of their high school days and teachers who taught the subject in not-very-exciting ways, or they simply don’t see what the big deal is about the past.
In any case, the History Channel decided to boost its ratings in a variety of ways, most of which entailed shifting the “brand’s” focus from history to more “trendy” stuff.
At around the same time that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code became a literary phenomenon, the History Channel started airing programs that supposedly explored the novel’s theses about the alleged relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, including The Real Da Vinci Code. These shows then led to conspiracy theory shows along the lines of Decoded.

The network’s desperate grab for better ratings resulted in a shift from documentaries and semi-documentaries to the cheaper-to-produce “reality” shows Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers, and Axe Men.

That, and the channel’s reliance for schlock programming such as Ancient Aliens, explains why History (the TV channel) has lost respectability from most of its former fans.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Documentary Review: 'Prohibition: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick'

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited. – Section One, Amendment 18 to the Constitution of the United States

On October 3, 2011, the 300 or so member stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired A Nation of Drunkards, the first of three parts of Prohibition: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick. Written by Burns' long-time collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward and produced by Sarah Botstein, Lynn Novick, and Ken Burns, the series explored one of the most controversial - and least effective - experiments in social re-engineering in American history.

Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky. It is the prohibition that makes anything precious. - Mark Twain
(C) 2011 PBS Distribution and Florentine Films

The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution – also known as the Volstead Act, named after Rep. Andrew Volstead (R-Minn), who introduced the bill as the National Prohibition Act in 1917 – is a shining example of how legislation crafted with the best of intentions can have unintended negative consequences and create more problems than it solves.

Its staunchest supporters – the “drys” – hailed it as the Noble Experiment and an outstanding achievement for progressive forces that, if it worked as intended, would solve all the social ills caused by the consumption of alcohol.  Ban booze from America, the drys proclaimed, and such problems as domestic violence, spousal abuse, absenteeism from work, poverty and petty crime would be eradicated, leaving a "more perfect union."

From the mid-19th Century to the entry of the United States into the First World War, the temperance movement - an alliance of religious leaders, women and citizens of rural communities (most of them in the Midwest and South) pitted itself against big city dwellers, immigrants and the alcoholic beverage industry – the nation’s fifth largest job creating enterprise and the biggest source of revenue for the Federal government – and endeavored to eliminate saloons, breweries and distilleries from America.

The eighty-year-long War on Booze was, as filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick point out in their three part documentary Prohibition, a protracted and ultimately futile attempt by a mostly white and Protestant coalition of preachers, women activists, lawyers and anti-immigrant groups to legislate morality in the name of a more pure – socially, religiously and racially speaking –America.

Its crowning achievement, of course, was the Volstead Act of 1917, which was introduced in Congress by a conservative congressman from Minnesota at a time when anti-German sentiment was at a fever pitch and public opinion favored quick passage of a bill intended to “punish” supposedly untrustworthy German-American owners of such breweries as Anheuser-Busch, Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company and other such companies based in the Midwest.

Indeed, A Nation of Drunkards, the first of Prohibition’s three parts, points out that had it not been for the clever manipulation by the Anti-Saloon League’s Wayne Wheeler of wartime hatred for all things German, passage of the Volstead Act would have taken longer and it might have even died without ever becoming part of the Constitution.  (It was, in fact, vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, but it had enough supporters in the House of Representatives and the veto was overturned.  The 18th Amendment became the law of the land after it was ratified in 1919 when Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify it.)

How did a nation founded on rights ever go so wrong? – 
tagline for Prohibition

However, as the episodes A Nation of Scofflaws and A Nation of Hypocrites remind us, the only amendment to the Constitution designed to restrict personal freedoms and impose morality on an entire nation failed miserably.  (It's also, incidentally, the only amendment to have been repealed.)

We who live in the 21st Century know, of course, how miserably things worked out for the dry movement and the entire nation.  Prohibition did, at first, have some positive results because most Americans knew that alcohol abuse was a social problem that needed to be addressed.  Many individuals, even those who were drinkers, tried to obey the law as a matter of good citizenship.  As a result, alcohol-related car accidents were reduced and public drunkenness arrests went down sharply within the first 12 months of the Prohibition era.

However, the law had many loopholes and was not enforced seriously or even fairly.  The manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages was forbidden, yet the consumption of it was not even mentioned in the Volstead Act.  Some states which had ratified it – including Michigan - did nothing to enforce it and even repealed prohibition laws within their own constitutions, and the Federal government only fielded a handful of Prohibition agents to shut down illegal distilleries and speakeasies, arrest bootleggers and prosecute gangsters who built huge criminal empires made possible by America’s unquenchable thirst for forbidden beverages – beer, whiskey, gin and wine, for the most part.

My Take: In the tradition of other documentaries directed and produced by Ken Burns, Prohibition gives viewers both a Big Picture look at a period of American history and a more intimate and personal view at some of the individuals – both Dry and Wet – who were involved with (or affected by) the temperance movement and its ill-fated campaign to ban booze from America forever.

For A Nation of Drunkards, which covers the period between 1826 and 1919, and the other two parts, Burns and his collaborator Lynn Novick rely on the by-now familiar techniques of mixing dramatic use of cinematographer Buddy Squires’ lenswork on still pictures, archival documentary footage and “talking head” interviews with writers, historians and ordinary people who were young when Prohibition was part of the American scene.

In addition, Prohibition makes use of excellent voice acting by a cast of well-known actors, including Peter Coyote (the series’ narrator), Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Patricia Clarkson, Philip Bosco, Kevin Conway, Blythe Danner, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons. Some, like Giamatti, portray one of the series’ featured historical figures, while others lend their vocal talent to multiple parts.

The script by Geoffrey C. Ward, based mostly on author Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, probably isn’t flawless and might have factual errors sprinkled here and there (as history buffs and critical viewers of The War and The Civil War have previously noted) but overall Prohibition is a fascinating look at a pivotal period of American history.

It shows, in an entertaining and non-didactic style, how the Prohibition laws not only failed to eradicate alcohol from its long-established presence in America, but also instilled in many otherwise law-abiding citizens a sense of disdain for legal authority and – worse – helped the growth of organized crime and the incidental rise in crime, corruption and moral hypocrisy.

Although the digitally-mastered video and sound – especially on Blu-ray -  are top-notch and the musical selections by Florentine Films’ music editors are lively and evocative of the period, Paramount Home Entertainment and PBS Distribution should have taken some time to quality check the subtitles on the Blu-ray and DVD editions of Prohibition.
I am not familiar with the process of adding subtitles – in any language – to video images, but I suspect that it is a time-consuming and boring task that, if not carefully carried out, can allow all kinds of mistakes to creep in and show up on people’s TVs.

Sometimes – and this is understandable – subtitles have to condense what a speaker is saying in the audio track in order to keep up with the film’s pacing.  Thus, truncating a line of overlong dialogue so that the subtitle doesn’t lag too much is okay.  It happens in lots of films and most people – especially the deaf and hard of hearing – won’t notice.

What is not understandable – unless Prohibition was rushed to home video so it would be available shortly after its initial air dates on PBS in October of 2011 – is the sloppiness of some of the subtitles present in the Blu-ray, especially those that appear when street addresses are mentioned in the narrative. (At least on three occasions while watching A Nation of Hypocrites, I noticed glaring errors in capitalization when specific locations are named.)

All in all, however, Prohibition is still a remarkable example of documentary filmmaking at its best. It presents a complex topic rife with legal, moral and social conflict with wit, style, a fast pace, a fine eye for detail and a keen understanding of the extremes of human emotion on both sides of the issue.  Ken Burns and his Florentine Films crew infuse Prohibition's three episodes with a plethora of historical anecdotes and a cavalcade of characters –including the hatchet-wielding anti-saloon crusader Carrie Nation, lawyer-turned-bootlegger George Remus, satirist-writer H.L. Mencken and gangster-chief Al Capone – who personify the various factions in the struggle between “Wet” and “Dry”America

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Book Review: 'Battle: The Story of the Bulge'

(C) 1999 Bison Books

Pros: Very readable. Written just 15 years after battle, the account is vivid.
Cons: Missing part of the overall story due to still-existing classification issues.
Fog hung thick in the Schnee Eifel on the morning of December 16. The men of the Tank Artillery Regiment of the 1st SS Panzer Division, "Hitler's Own," were tense with excitement.

"All batteries ready to fire!" came the report.

On a nearby road, tanks of the division were lined up for the attack like a great winding dragon. A commander waved to the man standing in the turret of the next tank.

"Goodbye, Lieutenant, see you in America!"

The lieutenant laughed.

Final checks were made on the range finders. Throats were dry, hands were poised at the lanyards, eyes fixed on watches.

Up and down the line the arms of gunnery officers were raised.

It was 5:30 A.M.


An eruption of flame and smoke burst all along the Ghost Front. For eighty-five miles mortars coughed, rockets hissed off launching platforms, 88s roared. The ground shook. Snow-covered fir trees quivered, shaking veils of white to the ground. Hundreds of tanks rumbled and clanked, and from the rear came the hollow boom of railroad guns hurling their fourteen-inch shells at targets miles behind the American lines.

-- John Toland, Battle: The Story of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge -- the popular sobriquet for the Ardennes Counteroffensive of December 1944 -- was the largest single engagement in the history of the United States Army, with more than 650,000 GIs directly involved in the month-long series of attacks and counterattacks in the snows and forests of Belgium and Luxembourg. It was also the Army's first real campaign in winter, which until December 1944 had traditionally been a season in which armies normally ceased major combat operations and settled in for a respite in which units could rest and refit until the milder weather of spring brought with it better warfighting conditions. It was also the Army's most dramatic victory ever, considering that it had been made possible by excessive Allied optimism (The Jerries are beaten; the war will be over by Christmas 1944) and what was perhaps the greatest intelligence failure in World War II.

On December 16, 1944, elements of three German armies -- 14 infantry and five panzer divisions in all -- attacked part of the American First Army along an 80-mile front along Germany's border with Belgium and Luxembourg. The sudden and unexpected counteroffensive hit the Americans in an area the Allies thought would be a nice, quiet sector for combat-weary divisions to rest and refit while green divisions fresh from the States could be acclimated to life on the line: the dark and deep forests of the Ardennes. Planned and ordered by Adolf Hitler himself, this massive onslaught was launched with one objective in mind: penetrate the American lines, pass through the "impassable" Ardennes Forest, cross the Meuse River, and capture the vital port of Antwerp. At the very least, the Allied supply situation would deteriorate enough to slow the Anglo-American advance to the Reich's industrial heartland by a matter of months and buy time for Hitler and his tottering empire. At the very best, a German victory would split the Grand Alliance in three, trap the Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group on the northern sector of the front, and the Fuhrer could attempt to convince the Soviets that further fighting was useless now that the Western Allies had been defeated at the Reich's very doorstep.

For a few snowy, foggy, and bitterly cold days, things seemed to be going Hitler's way. Caught off-guard by the sheer size of the counteroffensive, hampered by bad weather which prevented Allied air power to provide ground support to the tankers and infantrymen along the front, confused and misdirected by a small number of English-speaking German commandos wearing American uniforms, and, at some points along the 80-mile "Ghost Front," isolated, outnumbered, and forced to surrender, GIs fought a seemingly losing battle against hundreds of thousands of German soldiers. But even when some units panicked or were overrun, many American soldiers -- sometimes in dribs and drabs -- stood fast and delayed the enemy, giving Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied Supreme Commander, and his generals valuable time to plan a riposte and turn what seemed to be a disaster into a strategic opportunity. And sure enough, after a month's of heavy fighting in the awful cold of a European winter, the German counteroffensive was slowed, halted, and gradually pushed back to where it had started.

The late John Toland's Battle: The Story of the Bulge was first published in 1959 by Random House, and was re-issued 40 years later by Bison Books and the University of Nebraska Press. It's also the very first book I ever read about this extremely fascinating battle; I checked it out from the library at Tropical Elementary when I was in sixth grade and read it over a long weekend. To me, Toland's descriptions of Hitler's last desperate gamble to wrest victory from certain defeat and the way the average American soldier recovered from the initial German onslaught were vivid and compelling, just as Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day (which was also published in 1959) instilled in me a fascination for the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944.

Battle, as historian Carlo D'Este points out in this 40th Anniversary edition's new introduction, "was both praised and criticized. Toland aroused the ire of the academic and intellectual community for producing a book rich in detail from interviews but not based entirely on official documents." He was unfairly labeled as unqualified to be an historian "because he had never studied history or earned a doctoral degree."

But Toland had the last laugh; Bill Maudlin, the Stars and Stripes artist who created Willie and Joe during his stint in the Army during the war and would become one of America's greatest editorial cartoonists, was one of the author's most vocal supporters, writing in the St. Louis Dispatch that Battle was "more fascinating than any war novel. The pace is rapid, crackling, like battle contains the best description of the American soldier I have ever read."

If there's only one missing factor in Toland's otherwise excellent book, it's an in-depth examination of the Allied intelligence failure to detect the Germans' preparations or even intentions. To be fair, however, 21st Century readers should be aware that information about Allied codebreaking techniques and the German Enigma machine was classified as the "Ultra secret" until the mid-1970s. And although the late Charles B. MacDonald's 1984 book A Time for Trumpets expanded readers' knowledge about the Battle of the Bulge (including long chapters about intelligence failures and German security measures to hide their plans and intentions), Battle is still a very readable and informative account of one of World War II's greatest clashes of arms.

Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Bison Books; Revised ed. edition (April 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0803294379
  • ISBN-13: 978-0803294370

Thursday, November 30, 2017

'Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns' Episode Review: 'Inning 4: A National Heirloom (1920-1930)'

Inning 4: A National Heirloom (1920-1930)

Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward & Ken Burns

Directed by: Ken Burns

The 1920s begin with America trying to recover from World War I and baseball trying to recover from the scandal of the 1919 World Series. America finds relief in the boom market and the Jazz Age. Baseball finds its own boom market in a player with a Jazz Age personality; a troubled youth from a Baltimore reformatory school who can hit the ball farther than anyone.

George Herman "Babe" Ruth is one of the best pitchers in baseball. But he loves to hit even more. In 1919, he hits 29 homers for the Red Sox, more than any player has ever hit in a single season.

On September 21, 1994, at the height of a long strike by Major League Baseball players, 300 member stations of America's Public Broadcasting System aired A National Heirloom (1920-1930), the fourth "inning" of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. For many baseball-deprived fans, this nine-part series was the only way they could get a look at their favorite sport on television that fall.

(C) 1994-2010 PBS Distribution and Florentine Films

Co-written by Burns with his frequent collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward, A National Heirloom covers the tumultuous decade that followed the infamous Black Sox Scandal of 1919. From the start of the Prohibition era to the stock marker crash of 1929 that ushered in the first dark, dreary years of the Great Depression, this inning explores baseball and its survival during a tumultuous decade.

"Baseball," the poet Donald Hall told us in a filmed interview, "because of its continuity over the space of America and the time of America, is a place where memory gathers." It was our intention to pursue the game — and its memories and myths — across the expanse of American history. We quickly developed an abiding conviction that the game of baseball offered a unique prism through which one could see refracted much more than the history of games won and lost, teams rising and falling, rookies arriving and veterans saying farewell.
The story of baseball is also the story of race in America, of immigration and assimilation; of the struggle between labor and management, of popular culture and advertising, of myth and the nature of heroes, villains, and buffoons; of the role of women and class and wealth in our society. The game is a repository of age-old American verities, of standards against which we continually measure ourselves, and yet at the same time a mirror of the present moment in our modern culture — including all of our most contemporary failings. - From "Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns"/About the Film at
Though A National Heirloom (1920-1930) discusses the creation of the minor league "farm system" by an innovative baseball executive named Branch Rickey, the role of radio in baseball's increasing popularity as "America's pastime" and the resilient nature of the sport in hard times, it might as well be "The Babe Ruth Story."  

Much of Baseball's fourth inning is devoted to the story of George Herman Ruth, Jr, the pitcher-turned-outfielder who is better known as the legendary "Babe" Ruth. Born in Baltimore, Maryland on February 6, 1895, Ruth (also known as the "Sultan of Swat") was the dominant star of the game for much of his career. Infamously sold by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1920 (the same year which marked the start of national Prohibition and the tragic death of Ray Chapman - the only major league baseball player to die after being injured during a game), the 6'-2", 215 giant of a man would become one of the greatest players of all time. 

While he was a Red Sox, young Ruth was an excellent pitcher. But what he really loved was to hit, so when he joined the New York Yankees, he switched positions from the pitcher's mound to outfield, where he completed his transformation into one of the best power-hitters of all time. He would wear the Yankees' pinstriped uniform for 15 seasons, playing in 2,000 games and set a record for home runs - 714 - that would stand for nearly 40 years. 

We learn, too, about Ruth's hardscrabble youth, which included being sent to Baltimore's St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a reformatory and orphanage, when he was seven years old. He spent most of his childhood years leading the rough-and-tumble life of a wild child, avoiding school and developing a precocious love for beer. which he drank whenever his saloon-keeping dad wasn't looking. Labeled as "incorrigible" by the authorities, young George most of his early years away from home at St. Mary's.

But if Ruth didn't have much of a formal education, he did have athletic abilities ideal for someone who wanted to play professional baseball. He began by playing in a minor league team called the Baltimore Orioles for a few months in 1914. But the team fell into hard times and Ruth was sold to the Red Sox for an undetermined amount of money. (Some accounts say Boston paid the Orioles $25,000 for the 19-year-old pitcher; others say the Orioles only got $8,500 for the future baseball legend.)

The fourth "inning" also delves into Ruth's appetite for cigars, booze (which flowed easily if rather illegally throughout much of Ruth's professional career), and women. Like most people, "the Babe" was a contradictory man; Ruth was a devout Catholic who went to Mass every Sunday even if he had caroused the night before, yet he cheated on his wife Helen so many times that the couple eventually separated in 1925. Helen Ruth died six years later when the house where she was living burned down in a fire. She was 31 years old.

Other baseball players are covered in A National Heirloom, of course. The unfortunate Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians is hit on the head by a beanball and dies in 1920; Christy Matthewson, known as "the Christian Gentleman." passes on in 1925. The segregated Negro Leagues grows in popularity and produces outstanding players of their own, including Cool Papa Bella and Willie Wells. And, since the passage of time spares no one from aging, some of the early 20th Century legends go off into retirement, including Ty Cobb.

A National Heirloom (1920-1930) is divided into the following chapters:

  1. Top of the Fourth
  2. Baseball
  3. A National Heirloom
  4. That Big Son of a Bitch
  5. Incorrigible
  6. Beethoven and Cezanne
  7. I Fear Nobody
  8. An Everest in Kansas
  9. The Fellow Who Carries the Wallop
  10. House of David
  11. The Background Music of America
  12. Bottom of the Fourth
  13. A Tough Epoch for Kings
  14. Not Commerce
  15. Some Ball Yard
  16. A Privilege
  17. Their Greatest Asset
  18. This Can't Be Helped
  19. Betcha A Nickel
  20. A Dollar Sign on the Muscle
  21. I Can't See Him Yet
  22. Our Arithmetic 
  23. Murderer's Row 
  24. Rueful Memories

 As in the previous three innings, director Ken Burns and producer Lynn Novick rely on archival footage and still photographs from the period to create the visuals for A National Heirloom. This is intercut with contemporary (1990s) cinematography by lensman Buddy Squires that features interviews with Daniel Okrent, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bob Costas, and Shelby Foote.

In addition to "talking head" sequences with baseball fans, sports commentators, and historians who share their insights and anecdotes about Babe Ruth and the tumultuous 1920s, this episode Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns also has a great voice cast: 

Narrated By

John Chancellor


Adam Arkin
Mike Barnicle
Philip Bosco
Keith Carradine
John Cusack
Ossie Davis
Loren Dean
Anthony Hopkins
Garrison Keillor
Delroy Lindo

Amy Madigan
Charley McDowell
Arthur Miller
Michael Moriarty
Gregory Peck
Jody Powell
Jason Robards
Paul Roebling
Jerry Stiller
Studs Terkel
Eli Wallach

My Take

One of the greatest talents any storyteller can have is the ability to get an audience's attention on a topic - be it the Civil War, the history of jazz, the Central Park Five case, Prohibition, or the Vietnam War - and maintain that hold from the beginning of the story to the end. 

It helps a documentary maker like Ken Burns if there is a large number of people who are already predisposed to watch something like The War, which many viewers had asked him to do for many years despite his reluctance to do another similarly themed film after 1990's The Civil War.  And in 1994, due to the Major League Baseball strike that deprived millions of fans of their game, Burns had a large number of potential viewers because to them, even a documentary about baseball was better than no baseball at all.

As a result, the original nine-part series got great ratings and went on to win the Television Critics Association (TCA) Award for Outstanding Achievement in Specials and a TCA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sports. In addition, Baseball won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Series, as well as an armful of nominations in other categories.

However, the best measure of any documentary - or any movie or other visual work in any genre - is the ability to hold the attention of someone who is not predisposed to watch it because of its topic. 

I'm not much of a sports fan. When I do watch sports on TV - something I don't do often - it's more than likely going to be a football game or a soccer match, especially during the World Cup. I have watched far more NFL games and World Cup matches than I've watched - or attended - baseball games. 

And yet, Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns has proved once again how Ken Burns' talents as a filmmaker and his passion for American history can grab the attention of someone who is not enamored with the game of baseball - and not lose it. 

Over the past few years, I've been adding many of Ken Burns' best-known documentaries to my DVD/Blu-ray collection. I started with the first DVD set of The Civil War around 10 years ago, then purchased The War, Prohibition, The West (which Burns farmed out to Stephen Ives because he was still making Baseball), The Central Park Five, Prohibition, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, and The Vietnam War.

Some of those films told stories which I was already somewhat familiar; others did not. But they were all entertaining and informative, and they all were tiles in the mosaic that is American history. 

So, yeah. I decided to buy Baseball

Why would a non-baseball fan want to buy Baseball, let alone watch it?

Two reasons, really.

First, I am a native-born citizen of the United States. I have lived in this country for most of my life. As such, I identify more with American culture than I do with that of my parents, who were both from Colombia.

I am an American. I love my country. I love its culture and its history. And because baseball is an integral part of both, I have been watching Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns.

Second, Ken Burns is one of the few documentary filmmakers who can take any historical topic and make it come alive for the average television viewer. He is a natural storyteller, and he surrounds himself with talented men and women - Geoffrey Ward, Buddy Squires, Paul Barnes, Stephen Ives (who also directed The West), Lynn Novick, Jacqueline Schwab, Susanna Steisel, and Molly Mason - who share Burns' commitment to telling America's stories in a moving and fascinating way. 

A National Heirloom (1920-1930) is structured - as are the other eight original episodes of the series - like a game of baseball. Each episode begins with the playing of The Star Spangled Banner, it ends with a rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and is divided into two halves, the "top of the inning" and the "bottom of the inning." The late, great John Chancellor, a former NBC News anchor, does the "play-by-play," while interviewees provide "color commentary" during the episode. 

At 114 minutes, A National Heirloom is almost as long as your average action-adventure movie. However, its narrative is so compelling that you don't notice the running time.