Monday, January 27, 2014

The Miracle of Digital

David Turnley writes the other day on his Facebook page about moving to digital:

Happy Birthday to Apple MacIntosh and the Digital Age.

In 2003, I spent a month mounting a clandestine mission to be smuggled from Turkey across the Tigres and Euphrates Rivers in the middle of winter across white water rapid rivers the size of the Mississippi in a truck tire inter tube by Peshmarga Guerrillas, to avoid being “embedded”, to cover the war in Iraq. I was almost killed twice. For the first time, covering this war, I was working with a digital camera. On one of these first days, shells had landed in a Kurdish village killing members of a family. With my translator, and an ex- English Special Forces soldier who I was accompanied with while on assignment for CNN we rushed to the scene and made pictures. As we drove down a country road, at the end of this dramatic day, I downloaded a flash card. Suddenly, with the sun setting, my Apple laptop computer, with the northern Iraqi mountains looming in front of me through the windshield, began to play my photographs as a slide show, to Beethoven, the default that the computer was set to in itunes. I began to cry- the years around the world- that I would never see my work for weeks after I had shipped film back to New York or Paris from some distant land, or managed to create a makeshift darkroom in a remote motel and spend a night trying to transmit one negative through an international telephone line. As we drove, these images were being transmitted over a satellite dish on the roof of our SUV to Atlanta, and five minutes later, several hundred images had arrived, to be set up to be transmitted over this International network to millions around the world as a three minute piece. For me, this was the beginning of the digital era, and I have never looked back. 

©David Turnley, From Baghdad Blues, all rights reserved, 2003.

David and his twin Peter are both photojournalists in the high stratosphere of the profession, to the point where it has become a joke among others at their level that one can judge the importance of an international event by whether one or both of them shows up to cover it, thus making it either a "One Turnley" or a "Two Turnley" story.  Tienamen Square in 1989 was a Two Turnley event.

Anyway, this reminded me of my earlier post on what I called The Devil's Bargain, where I asked what I would do if someone offered to replace all my film Leicas with one of the new digital Ms.  It does move the needle a little in the direction of "Yes," I think, but still remains with a caveat: If I sold every Leica body I owned (weeping with each departure), I don't think I'd have enough even then to buy a single M(240).  Not sure about an M9 or (better, in my opinion) M9P.

So I guess I'm safe from the Devil for another day ...

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dying Is Easy ...

One day in the newsroom, we were discussing a new horror movie, and one of the anchors asked, "Which do you think is harder?  Comedy or horror?"  I answered instantly: "Comedy."

Scaring somebody is simple.  My children can do it, simply by creeping up silently and shouting, "Boo!"  And they frequently do.  It's one of their delights.

But to really frighten someone, to horrify them.  To make something that will haunt your days and, worse yet, your nights for some time to come, that would be a real art.  It takes some skill and study to discover the things that reach directly into the lizard brain, that core evolutionary part of the human mind that tells the animal we came from when to be afraid.  And to find that place which, on good days, lets us sense the divine.  On bad days, it makes us aware that there is something bigger, infinitely more powerful, and possible truly evil in a way that we can only vaguely comprehend.

Comedy, though, what a delicate balance.  What is truly funny?  And is what is funny to some funny to all?  Is there a place, like that cold node of fear, in our mind that can always be addressed to make us laugh?  I'm not sure, but I tend to think no.

Dying is easy; comedy is hard
-- Last words of British actor Edmund Kean, 1833

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Problem with Movies Today?

I was catching up on reading something the other day, when I ran across this passage that seemed to be a perfect summary of the problems I often see in films these days.

The most important [thing] is the combination of the incidents of the story.  Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery.  All human happiness or misery takes the form of action; the end for which we live is a certain kind of activity, not a quality.  Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions -- what we do -- that we are happy or the reverse.  In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the Characters; they include the Characters for the sake of the action.  So that it is the action in it, i.e. its Fable or Plot, that is the end and purpose of the tragedy; and the end is everywhere the chief thing.
The tragedies of most of the moderns are characterless -- a defect common among [writers] of all kinds ... One may string together a series of speeches of the utmost finish as regards Diction and Thought, and yet fail to produce the true tragic effect; but one will have much better success with a tragedy which, however inferior in these respects, has a Plot, a combination of incidents, in it.  And again: the most powerful elements of attraction ... are parts of the Plot.
The Spectacle, though an attraction, is the least artistic of all the parts, and has the least to do with the art of poetry.  The tragic effect is quite possible without a public performance and actors; and besides, the getting up of the Spectacle is more a matter for the costumier than the poet.

So the criticism is obviously old -- that is obvious from the stilted language and the reference to "tragedy" as being the main product and "poets" as the primary authors.  But how old?  Aristotle, in 335 BC.  I took the quote from Great Books translation. (My father bought the whole set many years ago; it was one of his prize possessions, along with a particularly notable copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Anyway, I found it amusing that even Aristotle was complaining that the new stuff was plotless and unnecessarily full of meaningless spectacle.  Are you listening Michael Bay and Baz Luhrmann?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Somewhat Less Random Thoughts ...

Is that even possible?

Like being "very unique" or "a little dead," can random be qualified?  I mean, if it's truly random, then ... Well, I digress.

So a Facebook Friend posted a link to a Slate article that reminded me of an earlier set of "random thoughts" here.

"DWYL [Do What You Love] is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment," writes author Miya Tokumitsu.  "According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace."

This being Slate, we eventually swerve to a crypto-socialist agenda, although interestingly providing a backlash at the "liberal elite" who wave the DWYL banner.  "With the vast majority of workers effectively invisible to elites busy in their lovable occupations," Tokumitsu says, listing all of the base labor, from growing, harvesting, and shipping food to emptying the wastebaskets of her example, Steve Jobs, "How can it be surprising that the heavy strains faced by today’s workers—abysmal wages, massive child care costs, etc.—barely register as political issues even among the liberal faction of the ruling class?"

Then, while we're lobbying for $15-an-hour McDonald's workers, the article also takes an odd swerve into complaining about the injustice of how PhDs are treated.  Really?  I guess getting that doctorate -- a serious investment of time and money only required by a narrow swath of professions -- falls under DWYL, but then we're saying you should be paid more and treated better for DWYL, while we're arguing that DWYL is a self-indulgent delusion of the leftist wealthy uberclass?

Fortunately, she moves on: "Ironically, DWYL reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions, where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm: reporters required to do the work of their laid-off photographers, publicists expected to pin and tweet on weekends, the 46 percent of the workforce expected to check their work email on sick days. Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love."

Uh, okay.  Point made, and I can't help (in some way) to agree with the above, but more because of the trend than the specifics.  (I check my email, post to my job's Facebook, and do all sorts of things beyond just showing up for work hours.)  Some of what is listed is a sign of enthusiasm and dedication, not excessive demands by the boss ... but that may all be a question of tone rather than content.

And this all appears to bring me back to where we started -- not with the Slate article, before that.  I digressed.  Tokumitsu's thoughts were an interesting exercise, but her solutions seem as oddly skewed as the ones she complains about.  She misses the possibility of those who do love their jobs, even if it involves driving cabbages to market, in her complaints about wages and hours and work conditions, and also remains blind to those who may not have chosen the job they have for love, but have chosen to try to love the job they have.

And we end up back where we began.  Well, that was random ...

Monday, January 13, 2014

80 Men in One Mission ...

I saw this post on Tumblr today, and it reminded me of a recurring thought I have about the way we wage war now.

From the Tumblr account Peer Into the Past

The mission this bomber returned from made two passes over its target in Germany, an unusual maneuver that earned its group the Presidential Unit Citation.  It cost them eight planes.

Let me jump now to another thought, one I had some twenty years ago at the start of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.  As the first cruise missiles and stealth bombers struck at Iraq, targeting individual buildings and even rooms with an accuracy that would have left World War II's Bomber Command in a fetal position from envy and joy, it struck me that we would never again see the scenes they did in that last great global conflict.  Dutch citizens told stories of hearing the continuous noise of bombers, squadron after squadron, group after group, wing after wing, roaring over their homes for thirty minutes or an hour, a twilight sky filled with giant airplanes from horizon to horizon.

If you've heard the sound of a single B-17, or even the roar of the Rolls Royce engine of a Spitfire passing over, it makes it hard to imagine the continuous, vibrating rumble of all those planes going by.  It would be something that would drive the knowledge of the power, the combined, apocalyptic destructive strength of the Allies down into every atom of your being.

Now, we can deliver that explosive load of all those planes in a single aircraft, and we don't have to fill the skies.  Seventy years ago, we had to carpet bomb to assure the destruction of the target.  Today, a cruise missile takes a turn at the nearest street corner, and delivers the load of a whole squadron into the office of the enemy's commanding general, just to the left of the file cabinet.

So, returning to that 1944 mission with the two passes over the target: Let's do the math, shall we?  Eight planes, ten men per plane, in one mission on one day in the war.  Eighty probably dead.  The greatest loss we had in Afghanistan recently was thirty-eight, when a Chinook helicopter went down.  If we lost eighty men in a single action today, I think there would be Congressional hearings.  In 1944, it was just another day.

Is there a point to this?  I'm not sure.  One is reluctant to compliment us on the quality and tidyness of our warmaking today.  I'm sure the Pakistanis who have served as collateral damage on recent drone strikes might have a few thoughts on that.  Perhaps it is to spend a moment on the courage of those men, climbing into those bombers with the certain knowledge that some of the planes would not return.

Perhaps it is just something to think about.  Draw your own conclusions ...