Friday, July 30, 2010

Magpie 25

“I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you!”
Let’s go back a few decades. Young Berowne, 18 years of age, is having trouble in school. He has asked his friend Connie to have a cup of coffee with him.
Connie: “Look, Berowne. I like you; you’re okay. But as I told you before, we could never be a couple. To be real blunt about it, I prefer someone, well, physically attractive, and maybe a bit higher in the intelligence department.”
Berowne: “No, no, this isn’t about that. When I asked you to have coffee with me it was to talk about something entirely different.”
C: “Good. Glad to hear it. So what’s this about?”
B: “Well, I’ve got an English exam this Friday. It’s about the play ‘Twelfth Night.’ If I flunk it, I probably won’t graduate. You can guess how well this would go over at home, me not even able to graduate from high school. Now you, you’re already in college and an English major, so I thought we might just discuss my assignment so I could have a clearer understanding of it.
C: “What? You want me to do your homework.?”
B: “Not at all. Just a discussion. So I’d get to know the play better.”
C: “I’ll bet you never even read the dam’ play, did you Berowne?”
B: “Of course I read it! Some of it. The first parts.”
C: “I know I shouldn’t be doing this. I’ll hate myself in the morning.”
B: “Think of yourself as a good Samaritan. Helping a friend who’s truly in need.”
C: “Okay, maybe I can give you a little help. You say you’ve got a picture? Let’s see it.”

B: “Here. See, it’s a crummy old lock. The assignment is to describe what this has to do with Malvolio of ‘Twelfth Night’.”
C: “Of course. I get it. Malvolio’s locked up in a dark room.”
B: “Yes, of course. He’s locked up. Dark room…”
C: “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”
B: “No, but I sure hope you’re going to tell me.”

C: “Okay, here’s the scoop. First off, you should know about Olivia, the Lady Olivia. She’s a countess, lots of dough, owner of a huge estate. She’s got a steward, a caretaker, named Malvolio. As far as Olivia is concerned, Malvolio is of course way down on the social totem pole.”
B: “Olivia. Malvolio. I got it.”

C: “Malvolio has been performed in different ways during the past couple of centuries. Sometimes he’s in traditional dress…”

C: “Sometimes in modern. He may be just the steward but he acts like he’s in charge of everything and everybody; he’s pompous, bosses people around. So a group of characters on the estate get together and decide to have a little fun with him.”
B: “This actually sounds quite modern.”
C: “As Shakespeare often does. Anyway. The wise guys write a letter to Malvolio that seems to have come from Olivia: in it she implies that she is deeply in love with him and she’s sad that their social situation won’t allow her to show it. She asks him to show his love for her by wearing special clothing. Crazy stuff – bright yellow stockings, garters worn outside in a criss-cross way – and the poor guy falls for all this.

B: “He’s been pranked.”
C: “Exactly. When he learns that Lady Olivia is secretly crazy for him, he goes a bit nuts. He wears the yellow stockings, the garters, the whole deal.”
B: “I suppose the pranksters have a huge laugh.”
C: “Of course. As for Olivia, she thinks Malvolio must have lost his mind. So the poor guy is locked up.”

B: “And that’s where our lock comes in.”

C: “Right. Poor Malvolio, stuck away in a dark room, trying to convince everyone that he isn’t crazy at all.”
B: “How does it all end?”

C: “Well, since it’s a Shakespeare comedy, the problems are all solved at the end and everyone has a high old time. Except for Malvolio. When they finally let him out, he sums it all up by saying, ‘I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you!’”
B: “And as for Olivia?”

C: “Well, she had a few chuckles about Malvolio with everyone else, but at the end she feels sympathetic toward him.”
B: “All’s well that ends well, in other words.”
C: “Right. Not quite the right play, but the right sentiment.”

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


“B” is for “Bribes”
We’ve been reading a lot about the bribing of politicians lately; seems to be a lot of it going on. And not just in Chicago.
They tell me that bribery is a crime. What I don’t understand is this: if it’s a crime to solicit, to ask for or demand, a bribe, is it also a crime to pay a bribe – even if you have no choice in the matter?

Let’s go back a few decades. Ah, the joys of travel. I had a great job at the time, traveling around the world making motion pictures for major film companies and business organizations. I loved it. To be given interesting, challenging assignments, to stay in the best hotels, all expenses paid by happy, smiling clients and sponsors – surely there wasn’t a better way to earn a living.
It was great, but there was a fly in the vichyssoise. To get in to these various countries you had to deal with the local bureaucracy and that meant, among other things, you had to go through customs.
For the tourist in those days, going through customs overseas was a simple process. The American passport, the sincere smile, and you usually won yourself the little chalk mark on your luggage that showed you had passed the test and were allowed in the country.
Ah, but when you tried to waltz through with seven or eight cases of motion picture and sound equipment, which is the way I used to travel…

Here’s a group of today’s film-makers, always ready to head off into the wild blue yonder for some foreign assignment, hoping there’ll be the right kind of van or light truck available for rental there that will hold all their gear.

Because even in these digital days, most professional film people still use film. Back in my day, and it’s true today, professional movies were made with large, heavy film cameras, not tiny digital devices like today’s camcorders, some small as a pack of cigarettes (or even smaller).

And we also had to have with us a number of cases loaded with unexposed 35mm wide-screen color film, which was needed for the production of theatrical-distribution motion pictures.
In addition to all this, there was that difficulty I mentioned earlier: going through customs.
Whether it was the douane or the zoll, or whatever other term that was employed in the local language, you had to pass through customs to get into the country, and the wonderful thing about customs was that you never knew what would happen.

There were always little men in weird uniforms waiting at the airport to shake you up.
The customs service, in any nation you cared to name, was an official organization of considerable importance. It often came complete with some sort of Captain Midnight uniform for the personnel, along with a little pennant to hang up on the wall which usually featured a Latin phrase.
I offer the following examples. First, this happened in a German-speaking country. “Guten Morgen,” I said. I speak fluent German, as long as it stays on this two-word level. “Guten Morgen,” replied the customs officer, who you would have sworn was Sig Rumann in an old Marx Brothers movie. He had a broad smile. Customs officials smile a lot, when they know they’ve got you.

I explained that I had come to pick up my equipment. I handed him official-looking document. He stamped it with official-looking stamp and gave it to official-looking flunky. Flunky wheeled in the equipment.
“All is in order,” he said. “Come back Tuesday and you can have it.”
“Tuesday!” I cried. “This is Friday! The equipment is right there! You can’t let me have it?”
Another broad smile. “The man who must sign has left, since it is late Friday afternoon. He does not work Saturday or Sunday. Monday, of course, is a national holiday. Come back Tuesday and you can pick it up.”
So I went to the hotel and spent days running up the expense account. I had hoped to hire people and have the entire sequence, some of the most important scenes in the movie, completed in a week. The production schedule was pretty well shot and I hadn’t even started.
But the truth is, the problem usually had to do with money – money as in payoff, gratuity, tip, baksheesh or, to come right out with it, bribe.
In a number of countries, there was a routine you had to go through, and it was often pretty much the same: one of the men would say that everything was in order but there was just one thing: a little something for the customs officer.
The request was never a surprise. In my years of handling film assignments in various parts of the world, I had frequently been asked for “a little something.”
In Latin America they call it “la mordida,” the bite. In Italy, it’s “la bustarella,” the little envelope. In West Africa it’s known as “a bit of dash.”

And what did I do about it, when they put this mordida on me? I went along. I handed over the money. Fighting City Hall was tough enough back home, but in a foreign land an angry customs official could easily “lose” a case or two of expensive camera gear.
Or a few handfuls of sand thrown into the cases was all that it would have taken to bring the entire expedition to a grinding halt.
The question I’m wondering about today is, if this was extortion, a crime, was I also committing a crime by paying the money? It’s worth mentioning that the sums in question were distinctly minor-league: in those days something like forty dollars or so was the usual demand, easily covered by the production budget. But I never felt I had a choice, to pay or not to pay.
Well, if it was a crime, I suppose the statute of limitations has run out by now.
The other problem with customs was created by the film I brought with me. Surely the customs chaps should have realized that if you’re there to shoot a film you’ve got to have some film to shoot. But there was something about a sealed box, a box that could not be opened, that went against everything they believed in.

(If the film was unexposed, the average customs official would display an intense desire to open each roll and examine it to make sure it was unexposed.)
One sat down to play the customs game with trepidation; it was a game they usually won. As I mentioned, the customs services often would have an official Latin phrase on the pennant that was hanging on the wall behind them. They all seemed to have an unofficial one, too: “Omnes Chartas Tenemus.” (“We Hold All the Cards.”)
Ever find yourself in a similar situation, where you had to pay a bribe and felt you had no other choice?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Magpie #24

“Will you come to bed, my lord?”

(Willow’s prompt this week immediately summoned forth Act V of “Othello.”)
DESDEMONA: “Who’s there? Othello?”
OTHELLO: “Ay, Desdemona.”
DESDEMONA: “Will you come to bed, my lord?”
OTHELLO: “Have you pray’d tonight, Desdemona?
DESDEMONA: “Ay, my lord.”

OTHELLO: “If you bethink yourself of any crime, unreconcil’d as yet to heaven and grace, solicit for it straight.”
DESDEMONA: “Alack, my lord, what may you mean by that?”
OTHELLO: “Well, do it and be brief. I would not kill thy soul.”
DESDEMONA: “Talk you of killing?”
OTHELLO: “Ay, I do.”
DESDEMONA: “Then heaven have mercy on me!”
OTHELLO: “I say, amen.”
DESDEMONA: “And have you mercy too! I never did offend you in my life! Let me say one prayer!”
OTHELLO: “It is too late.”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


“A” is for “A. A. Milne”

I always enjoyed reading “Winnie the Pooh” to my kids; it gave me a chance to act out the parts.

They’ve grown past Winnie the Pooh age now and would no longer be interested, but when they were small they got a kick out of such readings. Pooh, humble and na├»ve, wasn’t difficult to do. Piglet’s lines were delivered in a higher register, and with a certain amount of controlled squealing, as he was lively and full of spirit. Eeyore was easy; you just dropped your voice an octave or so and added overtones of melancholia and weltschmerz.

So I was interested indeed to read that A A Milne has published a new book of the series: “Return to the Hundred Acre Wood.” Though it seemed a bit odd since A A Milne died a half-century or so ago.

Turns out that it’s a new book in the series all right, but it’s by someone else, David Benedictus. If you’ve got to do a sequel of a classic, his is the way to do it. He has done a remarkable job of capturing the tone, the voice, the spirit of the original work, and the new illustrator does the same – you’d swear the pictures in the new book are by Ernest Shepard, the original artist who turned Milne’s creatures into world-famous icons.

But there’s a question. Should a great classic be rewritten? Why? After all, the original stories are available to today’s youngest generation; the Pooh characters and their activities seem fresh and new to little kids, even though they may be a bit tired and outworn to us oldsters.

The world-wide success of the Milne books has been phenomenal. The Soviet Union – remember the Soviet Union? – put out a postage stamp on the subject, which would have set you back three kopeks in 1988.

And there is today a street in Warsaw named after the bear, in Poland known as “Puchatka.”

They’ve done sequels of classics many times. “Peter Pan” was recreated in this way, and of course there was a huge kerfuffle when a sequel to “Gone With the Wind” was published.

What’s your opinion? Should they have left the original Winnie the Pooh book alone, or is it a good idea to come up with a new, well-done version of the stories?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


“Z” is for “Zeppelin”
A few decades ago I had a wonderful assignment.

I was to make a promotional film for Lufthansa on the region of Bavaria. I decided to feature the fascinating city of Friedrichshafen, on beautiful Lake Constance.

One of the things that made it fascinating to me was that this was where the Zeppelin dirigible airships were born; in fact, where old man Graf (Count) Zeppelin himself was born.

It is not generally remembered today that zeppelins – “rigid” airships, not “blimps” – were thought to be the next step in travel.

Way back before World War I, in other words a hundred years ago, you could take a regularly-scheduled zeppelin from one European city to another, just like you took the train.

Here’s a group of ladies enjoying their zeppelin flight around the year 1912.

By the 1920s the Germans had come up with the beautiful (and appropriately named) “Graf Zeppelin,” which regularly made trans-Atlantic flights. Passengers, above, are seen preparing to board in 1929 when the Graf Zeppelin sailed around the world.

The dining room during the round-the-world trip.

The U S got into the act, believing also that this represented the future of travel, and built a number of dirigibles; note the stamp from that era.

This all reached a peak with the creation of a now world-famous zeppelin, the magnificent “Hindenburg,” pride of Hitler’s Germany, in the thirties.

This ship was a grand deluxe hotel, floating through space. Above, the dining room.

Here’s a picture of the smoking room. Think of it: the airship was filled with hydrogen, which meant that in certain areas the lighting of a match, or even a spark of some kind, would blow the whole thing up -- but there was a smoking room.

On the left, a lounge where you could have casual conversation with friends under the benevolent gaze of the Fuehrer. On the right, the children’s playroom, which had a light-weight aluminum piano. Sad note: the hostess seen playing with the child died in the 1937 disaster.

Because that, of course, is what happened to the “Hindenburg” – disaster. It was on May 6, 1937, that the airship caught fire and was destroyed – it took only a little over 30 seconds – while trying to land in Lakehurst, New Jersey. No one is absolutely certain of the actual cause. More than that dirigible was destroyed on that day. The disaster shattered public confidence in giant zeppelins and it pretty well marked the end of the airship era.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Magpie #22

“Fried Green POISON!”
If you’ve dropped by this blog from time to time, you may remember reading a couple of months ago about “Judge Phyllis,” one of cable television’s most popular programs.

Well, I checked recently, and I was surprised to learn that the Judge Phyllis show has gone on to become the number-one syndicated courtroom show on TV and Phyllis is now quite a celebrity. Her ratings are terrific: nearly 10 million viewers daily.
Willow’s prompt this week reminded me of a recent case on the Judge Phyllis program – it was all about fried green tomatoes. It went like this…

JUDGE PHYLLIS: Let’s see if I have this straight. You say that your husband is telling everyone that you’re trying to poison him?
JEANNE: That is pretty much what is happening, your honor.
JUDGE: Pretty much? Doesn’t sound all that definite. Let’s talk with the spouse. You’re – Richard, right?
RICHARD: That’s right, Judge.
JUDGE: Why are you telling folks that your wife is poisoning you?
RICHARD: She isn’t. I mean I don’t. I haven’t; I wasn’t -- what?
JUDGE: I see. Let’s talk to Jeanne. What evidence do you have that your husband is spreading the word that you’re poisoning him?
JEANNE: Well, your honor, it’s a bit complicated. You know how different things are these days because of the internet? Well, when I serve fried green tomatoes – a dish I learned how to cook when I was a little kid – he goes around telling everyone about it, including all the guys at that place where he works.
JUDGE: You mean he complains about your cooking?
JEANNE: Oh, no. The opposite. He usually told them how much he loves tomatoes served that way.
JUDGE: Where does the poisoning come in?
JEANNE: Well, I was amazed to learn from the internet that fried green tomatoes, prepared a certain way, can be toxic.
RICHARD: And poisonous, judge.
JUDGE: H’mm. So Richard learned this on the internet?
JEANNE: No, he didn’t read it there. He doesn’t really, your honor, read all that well. With the little words he’s okay; the bigger ones not so much. But someone there at work looked it up and told him the internet says that the leaves and stems of the tomato plant contain – wait, I wrote it down – “tomatine, a poisonous alkaloid.”
RICHARD: And you can imagine how that made me feel. Let me tell you something, Judge: poisonous alkoids can make you sick!
JUDGE: Yes, I tend to avoid them, for that very reason.
JEANNE: But, your honor, I don’t – no one does – use the leaves and stems of the tomato plant when I make fried green tomatoes. You saw the movie? Just about everyone saw that movie. No one got sick from those fried green tomatoes!
JUDGE: What are the monetary damages of this?
JEANNE: You mean money?
JUDGE: Yes, monetary means money.
JEANNE: Oh, it’s not the money. We live in a small town; you know, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. I now have the reputation of a wife who’s trying to poison her husband. People look the other way when I walk by. And what’s worse, every once in a while some woman will come up to me and whisper, “You go, girl!”
JUDGE: Ha. Sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh. What about you, Richard? If Jeanne makes these fried green you-know-whats again, would you eat them?
RICHARD: I guess so. Long as they’ve got them alkoids out of ‘em.
JUDGE: Jeanne, I’m afraid there’s not much we can do, legally. You might avoid preparing this dish for a while. And Richard, don’t talk about it at work. This way the two of you can move ahead to a long, happy, alkoid-free life. Bailiff, next case!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


"Y is for You--What Would YOU Have Done?"
What I am about to post is true. It happened.

Let’s go back a number of decades, back to when I first entered the service. I had a friend in boot camp – let’s call him “Ed” because that wasn’t his name – and we hung out a lot, talking about what we might do in the future.
One day, after we had finished boot camp, he confessed something to me. He was very excited about it. He knew it should be kept secret, but he just had to tell someone and he felt he could trust me.
It was a plan Ed had been working on for quite a while. Well before he joined the Navy he had been visiting a small city located in the central part of our state. What was unusual about these visits is that he had managed to obtain a uniform of a lieutenant-commander, complete with service and combat ribbons, and he illegally wore this when he paid the visits.

In that community there weren’t many military types and very few Navy personnel – and no shore patrol. A Lieutenant-Commander, especially one with a couple of rows of ribbons, was welcomed everywhere. He had visited some local church affairs and other such functions and had managed to meet a beautiful girl.
Quite unbelievably, after a number of dates he had proposed and the girl, undoubtedly a bit dazzled by this remarkable young naval officer, had accepted. Her folks had met him and had welcomed him enthusiastically into the family. Now that Ed was out of boot camp, he was actually going to go up in his fake uniform and marry her.
He had managed to convince everyone there that his folks were in Africa doing some sort of relief work, so they wouldn’t be able to attend the wedding.
It all seemed weird and unreal. I wondered what I should do.
A: Should I call this family on the phone (I knew their name so I thought I could get in touch with them) and tell them that their future son-in-law was no heroic naval commander but an ordinary sailor of the lowest rank?
Or B: Should I notify the military authorities that there’s a guy illegally roving about that area in a fake lieutenant-commander’s uniform?
Or C: Should I just ignore it all and try to forget about it?
After all, the marriage might turn out well; the couple might be happy together, even after it came out that his officer’s commission, and his ribbons, were phony, but that seemed highly unlikely.
Ed and I received our assignments and we went off in different directions so I heard no more from him. As far as I know, the wedding took place on schedule; I have no idea how it turned out.
But this is really about you. What’s your opinion? What would you have done in such a situation?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Magpie #21

"Marco's Back!"
“Manny, I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you again.”
“And am I glad to see you! You’ve been gone so long I thought you went somewhere and fell in. What took so long?”
“Well, the roads were in awful shape. And of course I stayed there quite a while; I wanted to see everything I could.”
“Meanwhile, back here, like the good agent I am, I’ve been working my tail off for you, lining up interviewers, book publishers – the whole nine yards. Everyone wants to know about your trip.”
“Wonderful. I have a lot to tell. Most people seem to have some funny ideas about China. I can straighten them out.”
“Terrific. What’s the most important thing you learned, the thing you’d emphasize in an interview?”

“Well, most people in our country think of China as that place ‘way around on the other side of the world, a backward land of poverty and ignorance where there are many citizens who don’t even speak Italian. I was surprised to learn that in lots of things the Chinese are very advanced. They have this ancient culture, yet technically they’re a century or so ahead of us.”
“I see. That’s great. But you know, maybe that’s not the point you should start out with. Our folks don’t usually want to hear that there are other places better than ours. What have you got in that package?”

“Oh, something I brought back with me; I thought everyone would find this of interest.”
“It isn’t – uh – you know, sex toys, or anything like that? The Vatican really comes down hard on that stuff.”
“No, no. These are called firecrackers, a good example of something the Chinese invented.”
“I’ll bet they’re delicious.”
“No, you don’t eat them. The Chinese believe they fend off evil spirits so they use them at births, deaths and birthdays, as well as during the New Year celebration.”
“Use them? How?”
“Well, you set fire to them and they explode.”
“They – explode, you said?”
“Right. They’ve got what they call gunpowder in them and off they go with a big bang. When you’ve got a lot of them going off, the racket is tremendous.”
“And that’s it? They just make a racket?”
“Yes, but that racket is part of the celebration.”
“H’mm. Marco, you’ve really got me thinking. Suppose we were to put a lot of that stuff, what you call gunpowder, not just in little packages, but in huge packages. I bet you could blow up a building.”
“Well, actually, I was sort of hoping this would be used just for peaceful purposes.”
“Sure, sure. But there’s not much money in just making a racket. Think of the potential! We should be able to use this gunpowder in rockets, cannons, guns – it will mean a whole new era in warfare. You’ve done a great thing, Marco!”
“I guess so. Though I was thinking more of peace…”
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