Saturday, December 28, 2013

Call me pathological (or, Lest we forget)...

Sorry, but I just couldn't decide what to call this end-of-year ramble, but as years' ends draw close, my nostalgia synapses begin firing off at a passionately high voltage, so I think either title should work...

Many years ago, in a distant universe, I did a music program called "Ember at Large." 

For one of my shows, I interviewed the brilliant songwriter and jazz performer Dave Frishberg. We were discussing the inspiration for some of his wickedly witty and sometimes wistful lyrics.   

I think we might have been talking about his song “The Dear Departed Past.”  It could have been “Van Lingle Mungo” or “Do You Miss New York?” Doesn’t matter. What I most remember was his telling me he had “this pathological fondness for the past.”

Oh, yes, he had a twinkle in his eye when he said that, but if you listen to his songs (or even just read a lyric), you’ll realize he takes some serious rapier-like jabs at some of what’s gone wrong with present day culture.  And if there was a lot wrong with said culture in 1986 when I recorded that interview…

So I guess the end of another year is not an altogether inopportune time to lift a glass to “the dear departed past,” and recognize some of its worth, lest the dizzying progression of dehumanizing technology chuck more of it into the great cosmic dumpster.

When I went to work for my broadcast organization in the early ‘80s, the huge newsroom was undergoing a transformation to computerized news gathering and writing. And one of the sights I’ll always remember was a floor-to-near-ceiling column of … manual typewriters.

How forlorn they looked in their “column of obsolescence.” 
The stories they could tell…VE Day…VJ Day…Truman firing MacArthur…
Khrushchev admonishing Nixon…Nixon admonishing Archibald Cox…
One Giant Leap for Mankind…

One giant stack of obsolete, unwanted machines, soon to be dumpstered. 

I suppose a nearby floor-to-near-ceiling stack of multi-carbon page sets and correction strips would also have told the story, but somehow not as eloquently as these QWERTY-Dinosaurs, piled helter-skelter one upon another. 

Would we want to go back to manual typewriters and multi-carbon sets, wastebaskets full of smudgy discarded attempts at writing? Not likely. But I do wish I had thought to capture that forlorn looking stack in a photo...

A similar transformation would happen a few years later, as reel-to-reel audio tape machines, grease pencils, razor blades, and splicing tape gave way to digital editing. No more sliced fingers, trying to remember which snippet of tape hanging over the Ampex, or your neck, or stuck between your lips contained that vital audio from the first moon landing with those words about a giant leap…90 seconds before the start of a newscast!

Ah, but razor blades and splicing tape on top of the old Ampex or TASCAM or Otari did have something of a mystique if you were producing documentaries or features, where the time frame was a bit less pressured. It had to do with one’s audio precision and knowledge of speech rhythms, musical phrasing, and the like…knowing you couldn’t just hit Control-Z and reverse your mistakes.

Would I want to go back to such “primitive” techniques in producing multi-layered documentaries of the type I now produce every week? Most assuredly not. But I’m proud to have cut my production teeth for decades in that pre-digital era.

While I can’t point to memories of floor-to-ceiling columns of discarded audio tape machines, I do vividly recall working with a young intern who looked (with a rather blank expression) at the Otari open reel deck in my office – if I recall correctly, it was a bit dusty by then, but kept in place just in case I decided to work with a dusty old interview on open reel tape – and asked me what it was!

I think I aged a bit that day, as I explained to her what those big floor-standing contraptions were used for (other than as a surface for piling old scripts and newspapers).

A shop window full of vintage sewing machines, Merchant City, Glasgow  ©2012 Steve Ember

Funny how a serendipitous moment out with a camera on a rainy November night in Glasgow (is there another kind?) can bring back such thoughts. I was on my way back to my hotel from a late dinner, in which I must say I luxuriated, after dealing with rain, wind, and flimsy mini-umbrellas that afternoon while out shooting. So much did I luxuriate that I decided a walk back to my hotel would show better judgment than taking a taxi. 
So glad I did, for as I made my way along the cobblestones of the Merchant City pedestrian mall, I passed the most unusual window displays in an old building. It was a clothing store, AllSaints Ltd, but this very large window featured not men’s or women’s apparel, but rather a floor-to-ceiling display of vintage sewing machines, all neatly arrayed, side by side on their pedestals. I recognized the Singer name on some of these stolid black traditional models adorned with gold leaf. But there were other brands, most of which I’d not heard of. 

As I rounded the corner, there was another huge display window, featuring even more of these ancient machines.

The stories they could have told…of sewing the seams of garments worn by famous statesmen, or actors on the British stage…

Who knows, perhaps Winston Churchill’s cigars had been withdrawn from breast pockets fashioned by one of these black and gold mechanical wonders, now sitting threadless but proud in that Glasgow display window.

The point is, while AllSaints, in all likelihood, crafts their present day garments on modern equipment, and their style is vastly more edgy and quirky than the timeless traditional that those ranks of old-fashioned sewing machines might suggest, they choose to display these relics of an earlier age in their store windows.

Edgy, quirky clothing behind a facade of great granny's sewing machines? Well, guess it's working for them.

I like that. Maybe it’s why I include telephone booths in photos I take in London, or Switzerland…why I record many a voice project using a prized Beyer M360 ribbon microphone I bought in 1972…why I never trashed my vinyl LPs, or my Nakamichi cassette decks, on which I craft music mixes to play on a pretty fine audio system in a pretty fine twelve year old automobile with classic lines.

I know it is why I “renewed my vows” with film two summers ago. It’s not that I ever really broke them, for film SLRs never got shunted aside, even after I bought my first serious digital camera in early 2008. But I most certainly delighted in enlarging both my Nikon manual focus and Canon EOS auto-focus SLR “fleets” over that summer. Even branched out into the Contax G-series of rangefinder cameras with their exquisite Zeiss optics.

My Nikon FE and my "new" Brownie Hawkeye. Not antiques, but much loved imaging tools, on a shoot last year. ©2012 Steve Ember.

That – and the rewards I continue to enjoy in shooting film – has been the topic of other rambles, but it gets back to the same motivation:  not losing touch with my (photographic, in this case) roots…not allowing computerized automation to completely replace all that I worked for decades to master - the techniques of f/stops, shutter speeds, depth of field, focusing a lens manually...making each of those 36 exposures count. There are even times I’ll remove the motor drive of a Nikon manual SLR, and delight in the comforting feedback that comes from pressing the shutter release, hearing the classic sounds of mirror mechanism and focal plane shutter, pushing the winding lever with my right thumb, and feeling that precision mechanism advancing the film. It’s kind of like comfort food.
Same feeling when I place a much loved vinyl LP on one of my elegantly designed, battleship-solid Technics pro turntables and gently lower the pickup onto the undulating spiral of the disc…or place a treasured mix made to Dolby-encoded quarter-inch open reel tape on the Revox...and hear real music emerge from my monitor speakers.

Now, tell me you get the same kick with your camera phone or IPod…

Whoa, Nellie...

Sometimes, I think it’s all happening a bit too fast – everyone’s gotta have the latest gizmo.  And if they break, or we succumb to the latest ad campaign, we buy the newest whizbang because it lets us take pictures while we’re texting and listening to “music” we’ve downloaded, while getting a GPS fix, and screeching on about why we couldn’t make the appointment. 

Or texting…or tweeting. Ever notice what this is doing, not only to the ability to communicate in sentences, but to basic spelling and grammar. And workplace e-mails written in text-ese. Reading such “correspondence” gives me a very bleak impression of my worth as a person to the sender.

Give us another few generations, and I fear we’ll see a society made up of creatures hauling their plugged-in selves around on huge thumbs with eight vestigial fingers capable only of picking up their i-whatevers, as they leave their dictionary-less abodes and try to slither out the door without dislocating a piercing or three.

And what has all of this done to our culture?

Disposable “music,” without melody but with lots of mechanized thumping, often with cretinous, dehumanized, alien, or meaningless, repetitive “lyrics.” Does it matter no one will remember such “songs” even two years down the road? I suppose not.  Why should they? That’s living in the past, and there’ll always be new iterations of such “music” – I believe it’s now called “product” –  coming down the pipeline for you to download into your touch-screen thingamajig. And  it’s sure good for your workout at the gym, or closing off all contact with your surroundings as you blast along in your designer running shoes, past those of us who may still have the time and desire to view a winter sunset…

And what effect has all this instant gratification had on social interaction - dare I say, even of the romantic kind?  Basic manners, politeness, courtesy?  I could live another few decades and I know I would never get used to people at a dinner table taking clearly non-emergency phone calls on their i-thingamajig-cameraphone-angrybirds-playing-app-bristling...devices. The more I experience it, the more I sadly know it's not going to go away, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Let's call it what it is: rude.

With each passing year, I feel more and more in the minority in terms of my true feelings toward this behavior, especially what it implies regarding the value of the person who has to sit dumbly passive while a dinner companion rattles on into one of these...devices, or stops to read a text...or, worse, chooses to text back. And when you see it all around you, a part of you starts to want to avoid such contact.

Funny, I can remember when cell phones were the size of a brick. They traveled with you in a BAG! Come to think of it, they were called "bag-phones." Somehow, I think the sheer girth of the devices...having to pull them out of big black bags...perhaps made users think about whether making a call was really...necessary. 

But the writing was on the wall... 

Detail from "Stadelhofen Between Trains"  ©Steve Ember

Of course, I can recall a vastly more polite era, not that long ago in the cosmic scheme of things, when people stepped into a telephone booth to air their angst and drama.  So much more civilized, and immeasurably more considerate to those nearby. Indeed, I have to smile at seeing so many telephone booths, high-tech ones at that, when in Switzerland. There’s something reassuring about the fact that SwissCom, for whatever reason, has not sent the telephone booth to the scrap yard as U.S. companies have. I’ll often point a camera at telephone booths, whether high-tech ones in Switzerland or those stolid red ones in London (like the one up top in Covent Garden).  Who knows, one day they might even be a curious relic that no one remembers…Like buggy whips...or cassette decks...or even cell phones with real buttons that don't require one to play "video games" to make a bloody phone call... 

Now, on the other hand, what we once upon a time in the quaint and distant past used to refer to as a “TV set”… you know those bulky things with 17 inch picture tubes?  Now that’s a technology I know I’ll not miss. I still have one (OK it’s a 20 inch), as I’ve not yet sprung for a nice large flat panel hi-def unit.  Funny how the brain can make allowances for a letter-boxed DVD of “The Fugitive” taking up only 2/3 of the screen size of a 20-inch TV and still get excited over the train crash or those dramatic aerial nightscapes of the Chicago skyline…Oh, who am I fooling?  Santa, Stevie wants a big screen flat panel set…well, at least next Christmas.

Would I even keep an old TV around to watch my DVDs of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" from the mid-50s in glorious black and white?  I mean, as in medium tailored to the message? I mean, like, nostalgic? Fuhgeddaboutit.

See? Not the total troglodyte…

Ma Bell had it right (the old dame had some class)...

Where we used to go to handle our telephone business - even the deadly kind! Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and the sinister Leonard (Martin Landau) emerge from opposite ends of a rank of phone booths in Chicago's LaSalle Street Station, after discussing how Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is to be assassinated. (Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest")

But, speaking of Alfred Hitchcock (to return to telephones and phone manners and etiquette for a moment)…Can you imagine the scene in the Chicago railroad station in "North by Northwest” if done today? 
That long raking shot of the rank of telephone booths where, without audible dialog but to the suspenseful scoring of Bernard Herrmann, Martin Landau, at one end of the booths, is giving Eva Marie Saint, at the other, explicit, detailed instructions as to where she must send Cary Grant so that he can be mowed down by those machine-gunning assassins in a crop duster.  Well, we know it’s explicit and detailed from his gestures inside the phone booth. 

If done today, I'd suppose we’d have the actor playing Leonard yapping into his app-bristling iPhone  or, worse, texting, and the actress playing Eve Kendall writing down the instructions on her tablet, while tweeting about how they've updated and improved upon Hitchcock's stodgy old vision...

And, if I may harken back to my fondness for the class of an earlier era, ever notice how Hitchcock  could suggest sex with an elegantly dressed Grace Kelly or Eva Marie Saint not removing a single layer of clothing...ever so much more powerfully than all the in-your-face pretenders parading across the screen of a multiplex to the tune of thumping, screeching, imitation music…and distracting cell phone conversation, live and in surround sound, all around you in the theater...Tell me you know of another kind of movie house, and I shall buy a book of tickets!

Well, guess you could say (in the words of Johnny Mercer, set to the music of Jerome Kern) I’m old fashioned. 

Call me…pathological.

©2013 Steve Ember

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