Casablanca

“Casablanca,” that quintessentially Hollywood concoction of romance, intrigue, cynicism, idealism, quips and patriotism, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.  Frankly this comes as a surprise because when I originally saw it during college it ALREADY seemed 75 years old.  I just did the math and when I first saw “Casablanca” in 1973, it was barely 30 years after the premiere – the chronological equivalent of someone watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” today.

But if “Ferris Bueller” still seems fresh, contemporary, and in tune with today’s zeitgeist, “Casablanca” in the 1970s clearly belonged to a distant era.  In its values, “Casablanca” comes from a time of seriousness-of-purpose, old-fashioned heroism, and sacrifice.  In the 1970s, we lived in a post-Sixties world of selfishness and me-first-ism.  Not much has changed, which makes the movie as other-worldly and refreshing today as it was 40 years ago.

I’ve rewatched “Casablanca” more than any other movie (and what does it mean when the five movies I’ve watched over and over – “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” “My Girl Friday,” and “Casablanca” – were all made within ten years of each other in the Golden Age of Hollywood?)  It particularly appealed to me as a college student coming of age in an un-heroic time.  There’s something about sacrificing yourself for a greater goal that appeals to young men, especially if you can be as tough and steely as Humphrey Bogart.  Indeed, Woody Allen made an entire movie (“Play It Again Sam”) about how he could be more like Bogart.

But just as “The Catcher in the Rye” says something different to you when you’re 55 than it does when you are 15, so too does “Casablanca” resonate differently now that I’m a much older adult.

The first thing I noticed on a recent reviewing was that it’s just about the most watchable and sly propaganda movie ever made.  It premiered on November 26, 1942, less than a year after American entry into World War II.  Of course we know now how the war turned out but in the dark days of 1942, it was not so obvious.  Hitler was at the peak of his powers, France was still occupied by the Germans, and there was no guarantee that the Allies would be able to liberate Europe. Told through the prism of a love triangle, “Casablanca” rallies America to the cause of anti-Fascism, offers hope that decency will prevail over evil, and even excuses the isolationism that initially kept America out of the war.

Here’s the basic plot:  It’s December 1941, just days before Pearl Harbor, and we’re in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, which is choking with refugees fleeing the Nazis.  America is still neutral and so is our protagonist, Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart), who runs a popular nightclub called “Rick’s Cafe Americain.”  Once an idealist, fighting with the anti-Fascists in Ethiopia and Spain, Rick is now an embittered shell of his former self, telling anyone who inquires “I stick my neck out for no man.” He is clearly a stand-in for the United States, which had idealistically embraced World War I as the “war to end all wars,” only to see Europe become even more dysfunctional than before.  Like Rick, the disillusioned America had become inward-looking and isolationist.

We soon learn the cause of his bitterness.  In the early days of the war he’d been in love with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who’d left him the day the day the Germans marched into Paris to occupy the city.  It turns out she’s secretly married to a famous Czech Resistance leader, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), whom she thought was dead but who turned up alive just before she went to meet Rick at the Paris train station (although Rick doesn’t know any of this).

Rick and Ilsa

Rick and Ilsa during happier times in Paris

As refugees on the run from the Nazis, the Lazlos turn up at Rick’s café, asking for help so Victor can continue the fight for freedom, and he initially refuses because he thinks Ilsa had played him for a patsy in Paris.  But Rick regains his idealism and willingness to help when 1) Ilsa confesses that she still loves him, and 2) Victor offers to help Rick and Ilsa escape because he loves her enough to let her get free, even if it’s with another man.

In the end all the cynicism falls away when Rick realizes there are still others with pure hearts and that he hadn’t been duped by love after all.  And of course the Nazis are brutes too, so there’s that.  In the climactic scene, he sends the Lazlos on the plane to Lisbon and he and his friend Captain Renault (Claude Rains) escape to a Free French garrison somewhere in the desert.  Just like the United States itself, Rick has shrugged off his temporary neutrality and regained his purpose in the world.

The above summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the convoluted plot or to the moment in history that “Casablanca” represents.  In 1942, half of France was directly occupied by the Germans, while the other half and its North African territories were governed by the unoccupied puppet government led by Marshall Petain in Vichy France.  In other words, although the Germans are pulling the strings in the background, the city of Casablanca is still nominally under French control, which supposedly explains why Victor Lazlo, one of the Gestapo’s most wanted targets, somehow manages to walk around unmolested.

There’s also a convoluted subplot about two “letters of transit” signed by General de Gaulle himself that are sort of like a “get out of jail free” card for whomever is carrying them (of course it’s ridiculous to think to think that letters signed by Charles de Gaulle, the enemy of the Vichy government, would entitle the bearers to anything but a trip to a concentration camp.) This is a great bit of Hollywood hokum and the pivot around which the whole movie turns – who will get to use them and go free?  The more you watch the movie the more you groan at this creaking plot device.

One thing you never groan at, though, is the snappy dialogue. When the American Film Institute produced a list of the 100 greatest lines in movie history, Casablanca let the list with seven, including many that have entered the lexicon of everyday life.  Watching the movie for the first time is like reading the bible or Shakespeare: “Oh that’s where that saying comes from!” Some of the best-known quotes include:

  • “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
  • “Round up the usual suspects.”
  • “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
  • “I’m shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here.”
  • “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
  • “We’ll always have Paris.”
  • “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”

Here they are in context in 38 seconds:

But it’s not just one-liners that make the writing a delight.  Except for the very serious Nazis and the even-more-serious Lazlo, all the characters are witty or mordant.  They’re living on the edge, which generates a live-for-today mentality.  Rick’s wit is bitter – when asked for his nationality, he says “I’m a drunkard.”  Captain Renault, the chief of police, is a deeply amoral hedonist, caring only about surviving and exploiting pretty refugees. When the Lazlos come looking for Ugarte (Peter Lorre), the original owner of the two letters of transit, they discover he died in jail, which prompts Captain Renault to quip, “I am making out the report now. We haven’t quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”

That the script ever came off at all is a miracle in its own right.   Julius and Philip Epstein (the uncles of Red Sox and Cubs general manager Theo Epstein!!!!) started writing the movie in early 1942, only to drop the project to work for Propaganda Czar Frank Capra.  Howard Koch, another writer, was brought on to finish it, unsuccessfully, so the Epsteins returned to write the final scenes even as the movie was being filmed.  In other words, when production started, no one knew the ending. Even by Hollywood’s factory-town approach to movie-making this was slapdash.  But Warner Bros. was in a hurry to get the movie into theaters as soon to keep up with current events.  As it was, even though the movie was set to open in spring 1943, it actually premiered in November 1942 to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca. It went into general release on January 23, 1943, to take advantage of the Casablanca Conference, a high-level meeting in the city between Roosevelt and Churchill.

As great as the writing is, the movie’s great emotional climaxes are musical.  The scene in which Lazlo leads the patrons and employees in singing “The Marseilles” is one of the most inspiring moments in cinematic history.  Whenever I feel the need for a little pick-me-up, I play this clip:

The other famous musical scene is when Ilsa comes into Rick Café for the first time, sees the piano player Sam and asks him to play “As Time Goes By,” the song he played for her and Rick in Paris.    (It’s in this scene where the line “Play it Sam” gets mangled in the public’s imagination as “Play it again, Sam,” which is the name of the Woody Allen movie.)  The scene is pure 40’s romanticism at its best.  By the way, you can make an interesting comparison to the passivity that the Ingrid Bergman character displays in both scenes: in one she’s in awe of her heroic husband, but in the other she’s musing about her lost love.

Somewhat surprisingly, “Casablanca” went on to win a Best Picture Oscar in 1942, “surprising” because even then it was considered high-end schlock.  (I mean, those letters of transit?  Really??!!)  And it more or less faded away as cinema moved first into Technicolor, then into the feel-good Fifties, and finally the counterculture Sixties.  In the Sixties World War II seemed very far away and no longer talked about it, even though many of our fathers had actually served in the war.

The resurgence of “Casablanca” was closely tied to a reappreciation of Bogart himself.  After “Casablanca” Bogart became a major movie star, winning the Oscar for “The African Queen” and marrying the very young and very sultry Lauren Bacall.  But all that smoking and drinking did him in and he died of lung cancer in 1957, a relic of old Hollywood.

But he was rediscovered by French intellectuals in the late 50s and in “Breathless,” one of the most influential New Wave films of the era, the protagonist, wanting to be cool, sees a Bogart still and tries to imitate him.

Once French intellectuals adopted Bogart, college students followed suit, with the first beachhead at Harvard.  Legend has it that when the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge played “Casablanca” during exam week, the Harvard students would stand and sing during “The Marseilles” scene, a proto-“Rocky Horror Picture Show” experience.

Understanding Bogart is key to understanding the appeal of “Casablanca.”   I ended up doing my senior thesis on Bogart, when I graduated from college in the mid-seventies and I still thank my adviser Eleanor Ilgen for letting me focus on a non-traditional topic.  I did make one fundamental error, though.  My topic was Humphrey Bogart as a cultural icon in the 1940s, but what I should have done is studied him as a cultural figure in the 1970s.  The more interesting question would have been what was it about him that appealed to us in the Seventies?

My girlfriend at the time assured me that she thought Bogart was sexy, but I always found that hard to believe.  He didn’t achieve real stardom until he was in his Forties and wasn’t conventionally handsome.  He had that lisp, was overly sarcastic and looked like he’d led a pretty tough life. But he did have that sense of “cool” that attracted the French.  Cool is the ability to do socially-approved activities effortlessly and with diffidence and Bogart was full of diffidence.

Bogart exuded a new form of masculinity too.  Before the existential neuroticism of James Dean and Marlon Brando, there was the world-weary, disillusioned Bogart.  Primarily a creation of urban America, Bogart was full of repressed violence and rage at a society that had seemingly lost its honor.  In “Casablanca” he’s more than happy to shoot anyone who will stand in his way, even as he doesn’t particularly care if he gets shot himself.  When Ilsa pulls a gun and tries to force Rick to give up the letters of transit (there they are again!) he says, “Go ahead and shoot.  You’ll be doing me a favor.”

In the end, Rick/Bogart does the heroic thing, sacrificing his happiness so Lazlo’s underground activities can continue.  Poor Victor Lazlo.  All he did was lead the Resistance to the most serious threat to liberal democracy the world has ever seen and he’s portrayed as a bit of a stiff – no where near as interesting as the more flawed, struggling Rick.

If you’ve never seen “Casablanca,” by all means do so. And if you haven’t see it in the last ten years, go watch it again.  It’s a classic for a reason.  It’s not my favorite movie from that era and I no longer consider Bogart a role model, but there’s still something seductive about the imagined world that it conjures: exotic but accessible; heroic but witty; sexy but glamorous.  We should all live in Hollywood movies.

Some random thoughts:

Not a good movie for feminism.  Ilsa Lund is passivity itself and has no agency of her own during the whole movie.  At one point she even tells Rick that he’ll have to do the thinking for all of them.  On the other hand, she is amazingly beautiful.

I’d like to see a movie made of the Victor Lazlo story — in other words, the same story from his perspective, not Rick’s.  I’m sure he’d be a lot more sympathetic and Rick would seem like a jerk.

— The cast included only three Americans — Bogart, Dooley Wilson who played Sam the piano player, and Joy Page, who played a Bulgarian refugee.  All the rest were Europeans who were themselves on the run from the Nazis, which lent an air of authenticity to the movie.  The story goes that during the singing of the “Marseilles” these exiles were so moved that there were barely acting when you see them crying.

In my thesis I made what I still think is a pretty good point, which is that it was inevitable that Rick would leave Ilsa at the airport because the theme of men alone dominates in American literature.  Rick’s closest relationships are with Sam, the black piano player, and the scoundrel Captain Renault.  There are few male protagonists in American fiction who end up happily-ever-after with a woman and when Rick and Renault take off for the desert to join the Free French it’s just like Huck Finn lighting out for the territory to avoid being “sivilized” by his Aunt Polly.  The ability to do that kind of analysis is what you get for your liberal arts education.

No one expected “Casablanca” to become one of the most beloved films of all time but this was not a movie that went unregarded in its own time.  Here’s the opening paragraph from the New York Times’ review in 1942: “Against the electric background of a sleek cafe in a North African port, through which swirls a backwash of connivers, crooks and fleeing European refugees, the Warner Brothers are telling a rich, suave, exciting and moving tale in their new film, “Casablanca,” which came to the Hollywood yesterday. They are telling it in the high tradition of their hard-boiled romantic-adventure style. And to make it all the more tempting they have given it a top-notch thriller cast of Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veldt and even Claude Rains, and have capped it magnificently with Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and a Negro “find” named Dooley Wilson.”

Ever had a Champagne Cocktail?  Me neither, but they are guzzling them at Rick’s.  Here’s the recipe: “Place a sugar cube* in a chilled champagne flute, lash it with 2 or 3 dashes of bitters (Angostura or Peychaud’s), fill the glass with brut champagne or other, cheaper, bubbly (peasant!), and squeeze a lemon twist on top.”

— Words to live by:  “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

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TV Watching Couple

There used to be a saying that “The family that prays together stays together.” In other words, regular church attendance was thought to be good for stable, happy families.  When religion went out of fashion, social scientists then said families should eat dinner together.

But I’ve got a different idea – families should gather around a TV and watch a favorite show.  There’s nothing as disheartening as a house where the kids are hunched over their laptops in their bedrooms while dad is following football in the living room and mom is watching home improvement shows in the kitchen.  That’s a family where everyone is in his or her own world.

I’m not advocating a return to the Fifties, when each home had a single television and the whole family had to watch the same homogenized programs.  But with the amazing catalog of content available today it doesn’t seem too much to ask that families find at least one TV show per night to experience together.

Admittedly this is easier when you have fewer kids or children that are near in age.  My wife and I only had one child, and until he was six or seven he never sat in front of a working television without one or both of us by his side.  This smells of over-parenting in retrospect, but TV was always something we affirmatively did together – just one of several activities we shared.  It was not a babysitter or a way to pass time.  But if you have a handful of kids instead of just one, it’s not as easy as it was for us.

Watching TV with your kids doesn’t need to be a sacrifice once we’d separated the wheat from the chaff.   In fact, children’s TV can be delightful.  We discovered that “SpongeBob Square Pants” was hilarious, “Arthur” sweet, and “Hey Arnold” touching.  Soon enough we were watching “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld” and then “The Office.”  On the very last week he left home for good and moved into his own apartment, we binge-watched and finished the final season of “Justified.”

There are many benefits to a family TV hour: you can make sure your kids are watching age-appropriate TV; the kids come to understand that they are important enough to spend time with; everyone in the family learns to compromise; the family develops inside jokes and special catch-phrases; and the content stimulates unforced discussions that you might already want to initiate (or sometimes NOT want to initiate – I remember all too well the day my son asked me what Viagra was, thanks to a commercial during a baseball game.)

Once the kids are out of the house, shared television-watching can also be good couples’ therapy too.  I’m not making this up either – there was an actual academic study published in the mighty Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that said watching television together can strengthen the closeness of a romantic couple, particularly if the couple do not have a lot of common friends.  In effect, television characters become their shared friends.

It is a truism of marriage counselors that married couples should find shared interests to prevent them from drifting apart as they grow older.  I remember reading one article that praised a canny wife for taking up golf so she could play with her husband.  Today it would be offensive to suggest that a wife should take up a husband’s hobby – why doesn’t he get into gardening to make her happy for cripes sake?

Watching television together is not a marital panacea but I know from experience that it’s an easy way to generate a shared experience.   Five years ago my wife and I made a pact that we would watch at least one show per night after dinner.  We’ve recently started to follow “Game of Thrones” from the beginning (better late than never!) and it’s been an intense bonding experience as we’ve tried to figure out the characters, the history and the alliances.  Before that it was “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “The Americans.”

Please note: this video-based couples therapy doesn’t work if all you’re doing is sitting on the couch and passively turning on the TV to see what’s plying.  This needs to be “appointment TV” – a show you affirmatively want to watch and interact with.  It doesn’t have to be high-quality TV, though.  Even just kibitzing and second-guessing the answers in “Family Feud” would work if it’s an interest that a couple shares.  Because in the end, it’s not really the TV show that matters; it’s the commitment to spend time together on an experience that interests everyone in the family or marriage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modern-Family

Feeling a little down about the state of the world?  Wouldn’t it be great to turn on the TV and spend an hour just laughing?  Well, forget that.  TV has never offered as many comedy options as it does today and yet produced so few actual laughs.

We are constantly congratulating ourselves for living through the Golden Age of Television, but I don’t think anyone can really argue that we are in a Golden Age of TV Comedy.  There’s no contemporary equivalent of “I Love Lucy,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “Seinfeld.”  The closest we have today to those classics is “Modern Family,” which is heading into its eighth season and feels more than a little long-in-the-tooth.

The problem isn’t confined to network TV.  Basic and premium cable are awash in comedies, as are streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.  Almost every time I turn on Netflix I’m notified of a new sitcom that seems mildly interesting but usually isn’t.  Part of the problem is that many of the new comedies seem to be targeted at niche audiences – black single women, the transgendered, lesbians with mastectomies, older divorcees, teens, Hispanic single moms, African American college students, etc.  It’s hard to find a show with universal appeal.

To be fair, there are a handful of shows that are actually fresh and funny: “Veep,” “Silicon Valley” and “black-ish” are of-the-moment and hilarious, but none are particularly highly rated, and they ask the audience to think too much ever to penetrate the consciousness of Middle America.

An even bigger challenge in comedy is that the most highly respected sitcoms are barely comedies as all.  I’ve written about this before, noting that pain, humiliation, and self-involvement are now considered mainstream sources of humor.   Shows about drunken, self-abasing cartoon horses (“Bo Jack Horseman”) or pathetic education administrators who burn down their boss’s house (“Vice Principals”) might tell us something are human nature when it’s pushed to the extreme, but it’s definitely not going to give us a respite from our daily cares.  (See the “BoJack “trailer below for an example of a very good but very dark “comedy.”)

And it’s not just sitcoms that have ceased to be funny.  Late night TV was once the province of laid-back amusement – a place to mellow out with a few laughs before fading away for the day.  No more.  Now it’s the spearhead for the Trump resistance.  Stephen Colbert used to be a sharp and acerbic political critic, but now he’s so bitter about the Trump presidency that he is no longer funny except to Trump haters.  (I do have to admit, though, that “Saturday Night Live” was the exception to the rule this year, producing hilarious and much-talked about spoofs of the President and, most memorably, Sean Spicer.)

Meanwhile poor Jimmy Fallon, who deliberately tried to avoid political controversy, isn’t funny anymore precisely because he seems out of touch.  It’s a crazy conundrum – you’re not funny if you talk about politics too much, but also not funny if you pull your political punches.  No one seems able to find the happy medium – maybe because the country is too split.

One place from where you should be able to squeeze out a laugh or two is from one of the hundreds of stand-up specials on HBO, Showtime, Netflix or Amazon and yet I find this a generally unsatisfying experience.  There’s a reason that stand-up works best in front of a live audience.  The crowd laughs and you laugh too, even if the joke isn’t that great.  But watching alone in your living room with all the attendant distractions?  It better be riotously funny.  The last stand up special I really enjoyed was Bill Cosby’s 2014 appearance on Netflix (sigh).  I did appreciate the achievement of Dave Chappelle’s two recent specials but they were so risqué that I was embarrassed to be watching them even though I was the only one home at the time.

In the end, I think the problem might actually be that there’s too much comedy content.  How many more comedy shows are there now than in the 1980s, when TV fractured into specialized channels?  Five times more?  Ten times?  But there isn’t five or ten times more comedy talent than there used to be.  Writers who used to be the fourth-funniest person in the writers’ room are now showrunners themselves.  Comedians who would be barely scratching out a living 30 years ago in comedy clubs or improv companies now have major production deals.

Maybe we’d be better off with less comedy and more desperate struggling comedians.  That would be worse for them but better for us.

(By the way, the exception to everything written above is “The Big Bang Theory,” by far the most popular sitcom on TV and a throw-back to 1970s TV with its punchlines, laugh tracks, easy-to-follow plotting and three-camera production values.  The show is not really for me, but audiences seem to like the tried-and-true formula.  It’s shocking to me that no one seems to be able to duplicate it.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children Watching TV in the Past (5)

When people look back and romanticize the summers of their youth, they usually rhapsodize about swimming holes, the beach, boardwalks or picnics, but for me, what I most remember about the summer is the many many hours I spent in front of the television set.

It’s a rule of thumb that TV viewing declines in the summer when people start spending more time in outdoor leisure pursuits.  That’s not the way it was in our house.  Freed from the shackles of homework and all those hours of sitting in school, my sister and I plopped ourselves in front of the TV for hours at a time.  It’s a law of physics that all matter will eventually succumb to entropy, but there is nothing quite as entropic as a kid left to his own devices in the summer.

This was back in the day before parents planned every second of their kids’ lives.  And both my parents worked long hours so we didn’t have a lot of supervision.  Eventually at some point during the day, we’d go outside and run around in the back yard, ride our bikes or find some other kids to play whiffle ball with, but first we had to conserve our energy in front of the TV set.

We watched lots of cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Wood Woodpecker, Might Mouse), game shows (“The Price is Right,” “To Tell the Truth” and “The Match Game”) and syndicated sitcoms (“I Love Lucy,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and “The Danny Thomas Show.”)  In other words, not the most elevated programming.

And when we’d go to visit my grandparents on Nantucket we’d log even more hours in front of the TV. In fact, it was on Nantucket where I saw my first color TV.  Every Friday night we’d go down to my great-grandfather’s house and watch Mitch Miller’s show in color.

I wince now to think of those Nantucket visits, but there we were in a summer paradise and instead of chasing girls, exploring the island or learning how to catch fish, I’d be hanging out in my grandparents’ living room watching the tube.  How well I remember the summer I insisted we return from the beach by 3:00 pm because I wanted to watch “Dark Shadows.”  The chagrin of it all.

When I became a parent myself, my wife and I made sure our son spent his time more productively.  Even though the cartons he wanted to watch seemed vaguely educational or socially redeeming, we still restricted his TV time and signed him up for plenty of summer activities.

Of course TV today is actually the least menacing screen.  Video games are violent, computers provide easy access to porn, and smartphones are addictive.  My wife and I were lucky that smartphones didn’t become pervasive until our son was in high school.  If I were currently the father of a young child I’d probably WANT him to spend more time watching TV, if that is what it took to keep him away from the other screens.

But when all is said and done, I wonder if all this anxiety about screens really matters.  Left to our own devices my sister and I watched a lot of TV during the summer but we still turned out to be productive members of society.  Eventually I grew out of game shows and cartoons and started reading books.  To namedrop a big one, I even read “War and Peace” a few summers ago, so my powers of concentration were not shattered by a childhood of watching “I Love Lucy” reruns.  (On the other hand, who’s to say, maybe if I’d had the right stimulation I might have WRITTEN my own “War and Peace” instead of simply reading it.)

I still watch a lot of TV in the summer, but now it’s baseball, Netflix, and Shark Week.  Unlike my youthful self, though, I would never watch TV during the day, so that must be a sign of maturity.  Maybe when I’m retired I’ll recline on the couch in late afternoons and reacquaint myself with “The Andy Griffith Show.”  That would be a real second childhood.

 

 

Henry_David_Thoreau

July 12, 2017 is the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau, the godfather of the Green movement, the original proponent of civil disobedience, a likely virgin and one of the world’s great aphorists.

Like many others, I first real “Walden” in high school, and found it inscrutable.  I reread it in college and was inspired by the themes of independence, simplicity and naturalism.  I thought it might change my life, but alas, it didn’t really. Or at least not too much.

And then as a worldlier adult I read it a third time and found myself vaguely annoyed at the impracticality of it all.  It’s all well and good for Thoreau to live simply because modern capitalistic society has made it possible for someone to easily acquire the basic necessities of life.  Five hundred years ago a person living in the woods alone would have spend all his time growing and hunting food and would have no time for writing books.

Walden book

(My very dog-eared copy of Walden from high school)

It’s probably not useful today, if indeed, if ever was, to look at “Walden” as a practical guide to living.  However, it is a remarkable self-help book.  His exhortations to simplify your life, to stop chasing material wealth and to get more in tune with the natural world are more important today than ever before.

Walden Pond itself has been a place of pilgrimage over the years and I’ve been there twice myself.  Both times the site of Thoreau’s cabin was represented by some stone markers, although I understand an actual replica cabin has since been constructed.

Gary At Walden

(This was the site of the cabin in 1980)

Thoreau's_cabin_near_Walden_Pond_and_his_statue.jpg

(Here’s the cabin today)

Whatever you think about Thoreau’s philosophy, there’s no denying he is a remarkable writer.  Walden is full of beautiful inspiring language.  Almost every page has a sentence worth underlining (and having read the same volume three times, there is plenty of underlining in my copy.)  Here are some of my favorite quotes from Walden.  It would not be hard to assemble twice as many from his other writings.

  • The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.
  • Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
  • I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
  • I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.
  • However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.
  • As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
  • Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.
  • Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.
  • A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.
  • Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
  • Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.
  • Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

Twin Peaks Bad Dale

With the season finales of “Fargo” and “Better Call Saul” behind us, the prestige TV season is almost over.  There’s really only “Twin Peaks” to keep us going until next spring, when the Emmy-bait shows return.

This also means we have a short respite from highly stylized violence deployed in the pursuit of art.  Unfortunately, it will be a very short respite, because “Game of Thrones” is right on the horizon, and “The Walking Dead” will be back soon after that.

For decades, television violence has been one of the most hotly debated issues among academics, family groups, lawmakers, and critics, with most of the debate revolving around the impact of violence on children.

The rule of thumb is that conservatives are more worried about sex on TV and that liberals are concerned with violence.  And I have to admit that I am among those who think that a teenager is more likely to be influenced by watching their peers having sex than by people shooting each other.

Having said that, I’ll leave the debate about TV’s influence on kids until another time.  I’m more interested now in the impact of violence on adults, specifically the violence that appears on the most highly honored and respected television shows.

Any list of great shows from the Golden Age of Television would include some of the most violent ones — not just the previously cited “Game of Thrones” and “Fargo” but also “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Homeland,” “The Leftovers,” “Dexter,” “Justified,” “True Detective” and “The Americans.”

A comparison between the original “Twin Peaks” and its sequel illustrates how our tolerance or even craving for violence has grown in the past three decades.  The first “Twin Peaks” was plenty scary and psychologically disturbing through good writing, haunting music, original storytelling, and eerie production values, but there was little in the way of obvious blood and guts.

Even accounting for the fact that the first “Twin Peaks” was shown on broadcast television (ABC) and the new one is on Showtime, the new version is markedly more grisly, with disembodied corpses or gruesome murders in almost every episode.   In one recent episode a dwarf brutally stabbed two women to death with an ice pick, and a drugged-up teenage driver ran over a small child in front of his mother.  These scenes effectively illustrated the depravity of modern life — but boy, they were tough to watch.

Part of the problem with evaluating television violence is that there are qualitative but hard-to-quantify differences between different types of violence.  When I was growing up, the adults used to worry that the face slaps and head bonks of “The Three Stooges” encouraged violence. And there was rarely a Western or crime show that didn’t begin or end without someone being shot dead.  But those violent acts were relatively bloodless and not particularly disturbing.  Even today, there are shows with plenty of gunplay that don’t make you question whether life is worth living.

But one of the features of prestige TV is beautiful and powerful visual direction, with each scene composed like a masterpiece.  When someone on these shows gets killed (or even beaten up), the director’s talent is on full display.  For example, one murder on “Fargo” involved a guy getting stabbed in the neck as he was retrieving a carton of milk from the refrigerator. The resulting image was a stream of bright red blood pooling with the white milk – a beautiful but disturbing contrast between life and death.

On prestige TV, violence is supposed to be disturbing — it’s not to be taken lightly.  If a couple of bad guys are kicking a woman on the ground, each thud makes you feel sick to your stomach, as it should (see following video for proof of that).

Further, the more the show aspires to real art, the more the innocent suffer and the more random life feels.  This is one of the differences between prestige and traditional TV.  Most TV viewers prefer unchallenging shows where emotions are not ripped raw and where evil is punished.  That’s not always the case on the artier shows. Sometimes the good guys end up dead and the bad guys walk free.

Look, I like shows that challenge my assumptions and make me think about the bigger issues as much as the next guy, but the over-reliance on violence as an emotional intensifier seems a bit lazy after a while.

Here’s where shows like “Mad Men,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Friday Night Lights” really differentiated themselves.  Almost all of the drama we experience in our own lives is free of physical violence.  We are subjected to plenty of EMOTIONAL violence, but most of us don’t get shot, stabbed or garroted even once in our lives — never mind with the frequency it happens on TV.

So give us a break, prestige TV artists-of-the-first-rank.  Find a way to get our blood racing without showing someone else’s blood flowing.

people using Twitter

Like a lot of people, I’m beginning to suffer from Twitter-fatigue and wondering whether I should just dump the whole thing.  Oh, for the old days, when the biggest complaint about Twitter was that too many people were tweeting about what they ate for breakfast.  Now it’s worse, with too many people tweeting about what they were THINKING at breakfast.

Twitter hasn’t really reached its full potential as an enhancer and promoter of television either.  There was a time when I thought TV and Twitter would become inextricably linked in a kind of call and response mechanism, with people actively engaged in Twitter conversations about what they were watching on TV.

That’s not to say that Twitter and television are unconnected.  It’s just that Twitter needs TV a lot more than TV needs Twitter.  During primetime, for example, I’d bet that at least half of all tweets concern something that’s on television, whether it’s a TV show, sporting event or news development.  And of course a huge amount of Twitter activity consists of retweets of TV content, including late night skits, sports highlights, snippets from news shows, or memes from reality shows.

Twitter’s got a couple of problems when it comes to establishing TV-related connections.  First, it’s not as popular as you’d think.  Every reporter is on Twitter and seems to think everyone else is too, but less than a third of Americans have Twitter accounts and most of them are not very active.

Then there’s the problem that so much of TV is time-shifted.  You can’t be in community with other fans of a TV show if you’re watching it at a different time.

But the real problem with Twitter is that it’s so hard to find the tweets you want to see or to have your own tweets seen by the people you want to see them.  For all of Twitter’s efforts to manage this, the newsfeed is still a gush of unrelated content that frequently has little to do with your interest at the moment.

Here’s an illustrative story: last November 2 as Game Seven of the Cubs/Indians World Series reached its breathtaking climax, I posted on Facebook “Baseball is the greatest game,” and immediately got 20 “likes.” I was astonished that so many people were still watching the game at 11:00 p.m. and that so many had Facebook open at the same time. I posted something similar on Twitter but the tweet went into a void.  Did anyone see it?  Who knows?  All I know is that if I want a warm and fuzzy feeling, I go to Facebook.

There are four main categories of Twitter users.  First there are the actual newsmakers: the president, the pope, Katy Perry (100 million followers!) and other movie stars, politicians, basketball power forwards, etc.  They have tens of millions of followers but hardly follow anyone back.  For these folks Twitter is a great way to get their message out unfiltered.

A second major category are brands, including TV networks and specific programs, who use Twitter as a trendy form of marketing. Some networks are better at tweeting than others, but I’m not sure how much it really matters. One traditional video promo on a primetime show will have far more reach than any single tweet, no matter how well crafted.  The exception to this – a big one – is when a show tweets out vital content. “Carpool Karaoke,” for example, has been seen by far more people on social media than on “The Late Late Show With James Cordon” itself.

A third category of important Twitter users are the wordsmiths – comedians who make jokes, reporters who tweet all day long about the news, and other professional kibitzers.  Myself, I follow quite a few television critics.  Theoretically they could have an impact on what shows I will watch but their Twitter accounts are so mired in politics that they’ve lost a lot of credibility.

The biggest category of Twitter users is the hoi polloi – the millions of users who have one or two hundred followers and tweet occasionally or rarely – and who are the ultimate target for the other three categories of tweeters.

As a Twitter user firmly in this last category, I worry that I might be wasting a lot of my time.  I get a lot more of my new from NYT and WSJ news alerts than I do from Twitter; I’m annoyed by half the tweets I read; I don’t even know a third of the people who are following me; and among the followers I do know, only a handful seem to be reading my tweets.  And I’m just not learning very much about TV via Twitter.

I don’t want to get rid of Twitter altogether, because it’s still a good way to kill time when I’m standing in a slow-moving line, but maybe I should emulate the advice of those closet organizing gurus and stop following people who don’t give me joy.  Time for a full Twitter audit before I ditch the whole thing.