Monday, September 5, 2016

Time and Tide

My Mother-in-law is fascinated on occasion by a book, The Rivers Ran East. It's a story about an explorer's adventures searching for a legendary city of gold, and when she gets onto the subject, one is as likely to be entertained by the lengthy and complicated story of how she first encountered the book as a summary of what it is about.

Lately, she rediscovered the book and has been rereading it, stopping daily to urge me to read it and attempting to press her copy on me with the enthusiasm of an evangelist with a brand new edition of the New Testament and a tribe of undiscovered natives to convert. I unfortunately am in the process of trying to finish my own reading project, an old paperback of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo.* It seems the curse of my work and life that I either have a great deal of time to intensely read, and plow through multiple books in short order, or no time at all, meaning I might get through a single page before unintentionally falling asleep, the book slipping from numb fingers as reading glasses droop on the bridge of my nose.

Which gets me, after this overlong prelude, to the point of all this: time.

Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they'll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we're only mortal.
-Jean Luc Picard
Star Trek: Generations

That's very nice, but I tend to agree with -- or at least feel the same as -- the "someone," actually the movie's villain. He was willing to sacrifice an entire planet and those aboard the USS Enterprise to step into a timeless rift in the universe, freezing himself in any time he chose so as to not be stalked by the predator he feared. Not sure I go that far, but I do have some trouble seeing the grinding passage of time as some sort of amiable companion.

The other day, I heard a book discussion on the BBC with Judith Kerr, the author of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. It is a novelized version of her own life as a young Jewish girl in Germany during the rise of Hitler. In it, she admitted that the book's title was not where she started, nor even her idea, but it was what struck me very strongly, especially as it was all I knew of her or the book before hearing the rest of the broadcast. It refers to how, in their escape from Germany to Britain by way of Switzerland, the young Judith lost her treasured pink, plush rabbit, left behind in their home. She writes how, as a child, she imagined Hitler keeping the toy himself, as some treasure of his own. But as a parent (and an unreconstructed child) I am tragically struck by the sad loss of a beloved toy.

What Are You Afraid Of?

When I was a child -- or rather a young teen -- the concept of mortality struck me very strongly. It became finally, inevitably clear that there was no escaping death, and there is no clear answer to what exactly death brings. One can choose faith, or perhaps some vague concept of the supernatural, or one can resign oneself to ceasing to exist -- Pop! -- in a terrifying obliteration of self. It frightened me, and there were long periods where, poignantly self-aware, I saw the approaching darkness with dread.

Now older -- more than four times my age then -- the fear has faded, to be replaced by regret and a deep sense of loss. Time, rather being a fearful treadmill driving me to uncertain obliteration, is now a thief, stealing away friends and family, treasured moments and possessions.

I guess this too is a factor of aging. I no longer fear the future (that inevitable knock to come from the Reaper), but a loss of the past. As a teen, there was more future, and I looked forward. But now there's more past, and I guess I cling to the things that give me comfort.

*About the books: This was started ages ago, and I have finally finished Nostromo. I have not finished The Rivers Ran East, a dreary accounting of discomfort, danger, flesh-burrowing bugs, and cannibalistic natives written by a man who intentionally set out with inadequate support, supplies, or money. I have since moved on and read two other books. My mother-in-law has happily also moved on to other books ... though I'm sure my day of reckoning shall came.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Secret Code of Cartoons

My mother-in-law lives with us. At 90, she is slightly (she would say) hard of hearing, and so generally one can hear what she has on the television. Today, it was "Stagecoach," the classic John Ford Western. And while I of course recognized the music (a compilation of Western melodies and generic period orchestral accompaniment) , it was suddenly the orchestration itself that struck me. I realized it sounded just like the music in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Carl Stalling, the man behind the music in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons, was a true genius recently appreciated with a collection of his work. As the booklet in the disc set explains, "Stalling's propensity for flat-out quotations of Warners-owned pop songs and public domain folk tunes is evident from the very first." Indeed, as the publication explains, a key part of Stalling's work was his encyclopedic memory of songs available in the Warner's catalog -- music the studio already owned the rights to and could use without cost or limit.

Now, this meant a lot more when the cartoons were made in the 40s, because these songs were not only owned by the studio, they were well known tunes from feature films, and also pop hits. So when Stalling chose "We're in the Money" for Daffy's celebration of greed in "Ali Baba Bunny," it wasn't just a pleasant piece of music to fill out the audio track.

But what struck me today was the realization that there was a secondary undercurrent in that backmessage. The orchestration itself -- perhaps accidentally, because that's how movie music was done then, perhaps with intent -- also sends its own message. The music coming out of my mother-in-law's room, without the visuals allowing me to pigeonhole it as feature or cartoon, sounded just like the cartoon music.

So the cartoon, given a fraction of the time a feature gets, was able to concentrate its message with a range of cultural references, tune choices ... and they way those tunes were played.