night and the movies

How to stay focused in the COVID-19 era? How do you keep yourself from wildly unhealthy doomscrolling, say? Maybe the existing sociopolitical order will completely collapse tomorrow, maybe it will. Or maybe you’ll look at too many articles about a direly important subject du jour, as if you’re going to solve all the world’s or lower jurisdiction’s problems all in one week?

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have all the all the answers, finding doomscrolling and social injustice and dysfunction issue pieces and videos hard to avoid right now, despite being busy over the summer. (More about what I’ve read below, with a couple of links.)

I can say, however, what has helped keep me sane, in an era when I can’t just bring my camera out and take shots of anything and everything: Old movies. Unlike about half of everyone else, I haven’t been watching many television series or new docs since mid-March. Instead, I’ve watched a couple of older movies a week, on average, usually late at night.

I started the movie watching for a couple of reasons. First, I knew I would be without cable late this summer, given that my condominium complex is no longer providing it with monthly fees. Comcast, meanwhile, decided to add Turner Classic Movies, which I loved, to a higher tier. Consequently, early on this year I paid for a couple of months of the higher tier, and recorded as many movies of interest to me from TCM as I could, thinking they tie me over until later. Now that I no longer have cable, I am getting TCM selections through HBO Max, and other classic movies and art films through the similarly outstanding Criteron Channel.

And the surfeit of cinema is one of the reasons I say that the stay-at-home season has seemed so surreal. Things are falling apart outside our front doors. The entertainment and accessible film options, though, have never been better.

Anyway, some of my favorite finds have included:

Night and the City (1950): While this classic film noir’s story is not particularly original or notable, the atmosphere it creates through its immediate post-World War II setting, design, and photography is like no other in film. It’s seedy but alluring, a portrait of the poor and depraved but uniquely glamorous. Or something to that effect.

I was so inspired by the lighting and photography in the film that I tried to imitate with self-portraits I took downstairs. The first homage is at the top of this page, with the other below, with screen shots/stills of Richard Widmark from the film for comparison.

The other major find was Saint Jack (1979), a once-seeming comeback film for director Peter Bogdanovich. It was based on a novel about an American trying to run (or at least start) a brothel in Singapore, and getting recruited for a CIA schemes, ultimately rejecting them. It is not a spy thriller, however, or an action film. It’s a character study, and a week-in-the-life story. It also just happened to be filmed on the sly, and captured an older, decaying yet romantic and wild-looking Singapore, before it underwent dramatic, rapid upward mobility. The film was banned in Singapore for decades, I read later, but has since become a festival favorite there. And it has a following, with a book about the film selling for a premium online and off. The plot was hard to keep up with, I found, but I never once wanted to turn the TV off when watching it. Again, the atmosphere carries the day.

Otherwise, I loved these:

Tokyo Olympiad (1965), via Criterion Channel (including a version with informed commentary).

The Red Shoes (1948), via TCM.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), via TCM.

I may cover some others later, but have to save something to keep me from doomscrolling on another day.

Today’s Media for Thought

  • “The Sociologist Who Could Save Us from Coronavirus,” from Foreign Policy. Some of this I think you would need to have read the book to fully appreciate. I have no read the book. Still, it was easy enough to get most of it.
  • “The Fabric is Torn in Oxford” from the nonprofit Mississippi Free Press. I thought this Part I was much stronger than this series on Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) fundraising’s Part II, which gets lost in the weeds of byzantine academic politics, how a PR effort might have gone better, and seeming score-settling with or one-upping of a competitor. Part I also doesn’t tell you nearly enough about how the Houston fundraiser Blake Tartt made his money and reputation (the gigantic Memorial City development in Houston, for one), but it does provide an unsettling look at efforts to keep troublesome university donors happy–in this case at one with a school that once made more of a big deal out of stressing an old south and Confederate-tied image–made it central, even, just before and during the Civil Rights Movement years. Then you see this intersect with Trump.
  • The Axios interview with Trump. Must watch, if pain-inducing.

that time again?

After more than a year of avoiding this blog, thanks mainly to thinking, Well, the writing and photos get more attention on social media, I have changed my mind. Sure, photo posts will get more attention at social media. But social media, particularly Facebook, has gotten on my last nerve in COVID-19 crisis era.

At the same time, the crisis era has left me adrift as far as my favorite pastime, which was photography. Travel isn’t sensible this summer, as the positive rate numbers clearly show. I’m not dining in at restaurants, no matter how often I’m encouraged to do so via restaurant accounts at Instagram. The brunch drinks look nice. But no thanks! I’m not going overseas, not going to blues festivals (which aren’t happening anyway), not taking photos of friends or people modeling or posing for me.

I was traveling around for photos a few times a year right up to the day the lockdowns began in the United States. Witness these photos from San Antonio TX, taken during the second week in March. I can remember washing my hands all the time them, and freaking out when briefly finding myself in a crowd, making sure I got out of it quickly. Then came hearing from others about how all this was overblown, once the Houston Rodeo was canceled. (I disagreed.) That was it for me for the year, it turned out. I later canceled a planned trip to Southeastern Utah for May.

One of my last restaurant meals, at the Hotel Havana’s Ocho in San Antonio TX

So I’m back here at the photo site blog. I am not sure what all I want to do with it. Still thinking that over, something I don’t have that much to time to do–or won’t have soon enough. What I do know is that I strongly opted against making this a now-standard sort of static photo portfolio site. I’m not in the photo biz professionally.

Otherwise, I thinking that a) I want to look for subjects that can get me to take photos here and there, or use old ones, say, while giving me a creative outlet for writing as well as photos, and b) I want to do my little part in bringing back an Internet outside of social media, news media, and business-oriented and professional sites and such.

Many people keep talking about the how the old normal wasn’t that hot, or wasn’t working at all. When, then, continue to act like we can just type our way into something new and better via the same dysfunctional platforms? Why not go out on our own?

Not that I want to set too high of a bar here or anything! More later.

kings canyon: hiking day

Well, it took me long enough to get to the last day. I finished the last entry, which covered the day before, about a week-and-a-half ago. (I had just been hiking at the eastern edge of Yosemite in that entry, and then drove toward Kings Canyon again.) 

In the interim, I went to an academic conference in Boston, taught classes during the week, and suffered my way through a sinus infection that left me with muffled hearing. No fun!

Now on to the subject: My last day, which I spent hiking–about 13 miles total. Most of it was spent on the Mist Falls Trail, and out-and-back that takes you about 9 miles total. And it’s beautiful for almost every foot. 

I referred to it to people I met on the trail as “preposterously gorgeous.” Here was the beginning. 

I mean, that’s pretty enough, right? The thing is, it just kept getting better and better, in a way that I thought was hard to convey through stills. The only way I thought I could give you some idea was just to throw as many decent photos I have of the trail in there.

Now, let’s keep going.

Around here, you had to take a left, and head toward the falls. And not long after that, you started hearing the unmistakable sound of a mountain river. 

The trail, meanwhile, started getting consistently steeper and rockier.

And there you were, standing on nothing but rock, staring out into the canyon.

After a bit, I found myself at the Mist Fall (but not as quickly as you might think here, to see the time jump), and it was time for a lunch. I put my feet in the water. Had a cranberry chicken salad sandwich and such, then headed back.

Once I got finished, though, I didn’t want to stop hiking. I remembered that there were other trails just a mile or so up the road from Road’s End (the end of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, where the Mist Trail began), near the Zumwalt Meadow trailhead.

I took one of these afterward, for another few miles. This easier trail, which hewed close to the byway for a bit, was an out-and-back to Roaring River Falls–which is more easily accessible via an asphalt trail nearby, but… I wanted to hike more.

That was about it. I drove back through the park and the Sequoia National Forest again via the byway, turning off only to make my way to a panoramic overlook near the John Muir Lodge. It was hazy out on the horizon, however, probably due to smoke from the Ferguson Fire, near Yosemite.

This was also, I should note, a wildly weaving route, and getting down it–after hiking another two-thirds of a mile or so to get to the overlook–made me feel a bit cranky. I was getting tired, and it was time to head toward my next top. That was Fresno. 

I only really saw the hotel I was staying at there. I had a shower, ordered a takeout pizza, and went to sleep. Then I got up at 4:45-ish and went to turn in my rental vehicle, and head to Los Angeles again.

memorial day, vicksburg

A Memorial Day Mini-Getaway

In my “day job,” I teach political science. Consequently, on some days off, I find myself wanting to avoid talk of current political events. This, however, is usually impossible. I was reminded, again, of this when visiting the Vicksburg National Memorial Park last Saturday. No matter my intentions for the trip, by the end of it I couldn’t get a tangle of ideas out of my head, all of them involving our increasingly uncivil American politics of the present and how they cross paths with America's original and only Civil War.

Now, I’d gone to the park for its Civil War Sesquicentennial events on Memorial Day 2014, and had found myself almost overwhelmed by the park’s historical weight and beauty. It was an odd thing, mainly because I'd shown more than a bit of fascination for the Civil War in my undergraduate days, so long ago, and had many friends from Vicksburg in my freshman year then.. In hindsight, I think it was getting more into photography made the difference. Taking photos forces you to stop and closely consider landscapes and your immediate surroundings.

Consequently, when I had a free weekend coming and no plans, I looked to see what was going in Vicksburg for Memorial Day. In short order, I learned that it would be hosting a re-dedication of the park’s refurbished Missouri monument, as well as a living history program involving African-American Union soldiers, in tribute to their service in the Vicksburg campaign. There, I thought, is something you do not see every day.

Come Saturday, I was there around 10:30 a.m. This timing, a park ranger said, would possibly give me enough time to stop by the black soldiers event and go to the re-dedication, but I would be cutting it close. Ultimately, though, the black soldiers program sounded too interesting to pass up, from a photographic standpoint. I was right, as shown by the shot below.

African-American Living History

The man posing for me was one of several in from all over Florida for the event. They honored the first African-Americans to serve in the war, men of the 3rd U.S. Negro Cavalry who fought at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, across the river from Vicksburg. There, the original, non-reenacting soldiers shattered public doubts in the the North about the ability and effectiveness of these troops.

The man posing for me was one of several from throughout Florida for the event. I thought these guys rocked in representing their proud heritage. More specifically, they honored the first African-Americans to serve in the war, men of the 3rd U.S. Negro Cavalry who fought at the Battle of Milliken's Bend, across the river from Vicksburg. There, they shattered public doubts in the the North about the ability and effectiveness of these troops.

Today, I think even people from elsewhere think of civil war reenactment as a southern white thing, so I loved seeing these men out, to help show that it wasn't, necessarily. Unfortunately, the next event I attended could have left any outsiders thinking that white people more sympathetic to the Confederate cause still own the narrative, or think that they do.

Missouri Monument Re-dedication

Despite the ranger's earlier concerns, I ended up being able to get to re-dedication event parking in plenty of time. Once there. I found a colorful scene developing around me–middle aged and older men in Union and Confederate garb, representing the armies and the Union Navy. Two people were dressed up in period formal wear, as if they were coming from town, circa earlier days. Two or three living history had formal military dress for Union officers. Finally, two men sat to the right of the monument and played songs of the era.

Below are photos I took from the entire tour, all the way through, and at the monument ceremony.

Speakers, Excellent and Ranting

The program ultimately ran about two hours, mostly filled with speeches. By far the best of these came from Parker Hills, a retired military officer and leadership trainer who also authored The Art of Commemoration, 94-page book about the park’s monuments and sculptures. He has an exceedingly rare sort of academic pedigree, being a graduate of the U.S. Army War College, as well as a man with degrees in commercial art and educational psychology.

In his speech Saturday, he put a bit of all that education to work in talking in intricate detail about the Greco-Roman style of the Missouri Monument, as well as others at the park, about the symbolism of various monument elements, and the like. One of my favorite examples of the deep research he let viewers in on was the fact that the goddess Nike, at the center, stood on top of a globe, an idea its creator copied from a similar sculpture of Nike at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. He also put his military strategy hat on in talking about how Missourians fought each other at the site, and how their battles played out.

After that came a lively talk from U.S. Rep. Vicki Hartzler, whose district takes in what were divided to pro-Confederate areas south and east of Kansas City. She spent most of her time talking about battles between the anti-slavery Jayhawkers of the “Bloody” Kansas era, versus pro-Confederate bushwackers (at right) who burned down whole towns. (Jesse James was in with the latter crowd.) Around the time of the monument’s original dedication in 1917, however, former foes sitting down together, eating, and trading stories. Reconciliation was in the air, as the country was entering World War I.

Meanwhile, at least three other speakers talked of unity, but two–including a speaker associated with the Sons of the Confederacy organization (there along with a parallel Union forces heritage group) and another from Missouri–used the occasion to condemn what they considered attempts to erase history with the removal down of monuments, all dedicated by white governments and groups after Reconstruction, in the midst of Lost Cause mania. This, I took it was, referenced the removal of sculptures in New Orleans and another removal planned for Charlottesville VA. The Missouri speaker went further, admonishing “liberal” textbooks which have it that the war was caused by slavery. He went on to echo Lost Cause ideology regarding how the south had suffered badly due to norther tariffs. He also noted that most soldiers were fighting for the states and families.

Now, this is surely all too big for one bloggy post. I do feel a need to say, however, that such heated rhetoric reminded me that country is divided again, although not in, oh, as violent a way. But the reasons for this feel silly and pointless by comparison to what led to the Civil War, although I suppose it's all relative. I suppose. I mean, soldiers in countless wars have had any number of reasons for going to war. Getting off the farm, seeing other places. Being drafted might not hurt ether. Then, many a soldier on a losing side has acted with bravery and honor. Is this so hard to see? It’s not as if plenty of art hasn’t addressed this very topic.* Their bravery doesn't mean their side should have won, ever. Most wars involve sides with legitimate grievances against the other as well.** This is not new, nor is particularly liberal-minded to say so.

I think the current, intermittently raging debates about monuments outside of museums and dedicated memorial parks will be worked out over time. What you’ll need to end it well, however, is some balance in telling the story of slavery, in being honest about America’s flaws and historical evils. Unification is not something you completely work out among one group, all while depriving others of rights, as the nation was in the Wilson and World War I era. You will also need leaders who show courage in not giving into silliness such as Obama birther mania, as Rep. Hartzler did, and opposition forces who will remember this but not eternally lose their cool over The Stupid of that variety.

Please consider doing the following, in any case, if you ever stop by the military park: Stop by its monument to black soldiers from Mississippi who fought for the Union there. It's near Grant's HQ, which you can find on a park map. Then, stop and take in the full scene, and mentally put it in a larger context, one with all the monuments to service, bravery, and honor amidst carnage and tragedy. Even if you don't have a camera, just sit there and look and think. It works.

* Suggested viewing: Das Boot, Band of Brothers

** Suggested reading: George Kennan, on the causes of WWII, in American Diplomacy.