Saturday, April 25, 2009

Jack Cardiff and Ken Annakin Pass On

Two individuals in the movie world passed on recently. Jack Cardiff was an Academy Award winning, British cinematographer who worked on films ranging from The Red Shoes to The African Queen. Ken Annakin was the director behind such films as Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and Swiss Family Robinson.

Jack Cardiff O.B.E. passed April 22 at the age of 94. His career spanned from the Silent Era to the Naughts.

Jack Cardiff was born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk on September 18, 1914. His parents were entertainers in music halls. Cardiff was still young when he appeared as an actor in both music halls and on the big screen. As an actor he appeared in My Son, My Son in 1918 and Bily's Rose in 1922, among other films. While his parents moved frequently, Cardiff started visiting museums at age 9, becoming studying the works of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and the Impressionists. By age 15 he was working as a camera assistant and production runner for British International Pictures. Cardiff rose through the ranks from clapper boy on Harmony Heaven in 1929 to camera operator on Honeymoon for Three in 1935. Among the films on which Jack Cardiff was a camera operator were Brewster's Millions (1935), Things to Come (1936), The Four Feathers (1939), and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).

His first experience as a cinematographer came on Ernest B. Schoedsack's The Last Days of Pompeii in 1935, for which he was not credited. Over the next several years he would be cinematographer on several documentary shorts. He would photograph Gabriel Pascal's Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and received his big break when director Michael Powell took notice of him. He would be the cinematographer on three of Powell's classic films, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). For Black Narcissus Cardiff won the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Over the next several decades Jack Cardiff was director of cinematography on several films, including The Black Rose, The African Queen, The Master of Ballantrae (1953), The Vikings, Crossed Swords, Ghost Story, and Rambo: First Blood Part II. His last work was on the mini-series The Other Side of the Screen in 2007.

Jack Cardiff also directed a few times. His directorial debut was The Story of William Tell in 1953, on which he was also cinematographer. He would go onto direct Sons and Lovers (for which he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Director), the sex comedy My Geisha, and The Girl on a Motorcycle.

Cardiff was the first man to shoot a film in Britain in Technicolour, Wings of the Morning (1937). He was nominated for the Oscar for Best Cinematography for War and Peace (1956) and Fanny (1961).

Jack Cardiff was among the greatest cinematographers of all time. He learned his use of light and shadow from studying the works of Rembrandt, and his photographer as easily as beautiful as any painting from the Dutch master. He was also a master of colour. The colours in his films were always vivid, particularly in the films he made with Michael Powell. The 15 minute ballet sequence in The Red Shoes is one of the greatest feats of cinematography in film history. Quite simply, Jack Cardiff was a master whose work was rarely matched and almost never surpassed.

Ken Annakin, who directed family oriented films ranging from comedy to action movies, passed on April 22 at the age of 94.

Annakin was born on August 10, 1914 in Beverley, Yorkshire. Annakin dropped out of school, afterwards becoming a "trainee income tax inspector" in Hull. He escaped from this life after winning 100 pounds in the Derby. He used his winnings to travel to Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Annakin found himself taking various odd jobs after his journey around the world, working as a car salesman, the emcee for a road show, an insurance salesman, and so on. During World War II he joined the RAF where he was initially a flight mechanic. Injured when Liverpool was bombed, Annakin soon found himself a camera operator on RAF training films, as well as documentaries for the British Army, the British Council, and the Ministry of Information. Eventually he became an assistant director and then a director.

Eventually Annakin went to work for Gainsborough Pictures. There he made his first fiction feature film Holiday Camp, a comedy released in 1947. The film proved so successful that it produced three sequels, two of which were directed by Annakin. His second feature film, Miranda, released in 1948, also proved to be a hit. It featured Glynis Johns as a mermaid. That same year Annakin's first adventure film, Broken Journey, was released. The next few years Annakin would direct such films as Double Confession and Hotel Sahara.

It was with The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men in 1952 that Ken Annakin began his successful association with Disney. It was for Disney that Annakin directed what are probably his best known movies: The Sword and the Rose (1953--AKA When Knighthood Was in Flower), Third Man on the Mountain, and Swiss Family Robinson (1960). He continued to direct for other companies, making such films as the comedies Value For Money and Loser Takes All.

The Sixties saw Annakin direct the action movie The Hellions and the British portions of The Longest Day. The mid-Sixties could well have been the height of his career. Annakin directed the well known comedy Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and The Battle of the Bulge. Annakin's later films would not do nearly as well for the most part. He directed Monte Carlo or Bust (AKA Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies, a few television movies, The Fifth Musketeer (on which he worked with Jack Cardiff, who died the same day as he did), and The Pirate Movie. His last completed film was The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, released in 1988.

Ken Annakin was hardly a director with pretensions of artistic greatness. That having been said, he was a commercial director with a gift for creating some of the most entertaining films of their eras. His association with Disney not only some of his best work, but some of that studio's best adventure films as well. His comedies were genuinely funny, something that cannot be said of many of the comedies of this era. Quite simply, Ken Annakin was a master when it came to creating appealing mass entertainment. Few directors saw the success that his did.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

My Blog Sets a Record

Yesterday A Shroud of Thoughts received more hits than it ever has in its nearly five year history. It received around 1680 hits. This is more than it usually receive in an entire week. I must admit, when I checked my counters last night I was a bit mystified, if rather happy.

It appears that the vast majority of the hits (I would say 99% of them) were to my entry "The Rise and Fall of the Independent Television Station." from June 13, 2005. Among other things related to the independent television stations of old, I discuss Edward "Uncle Ed" Muscare, a once popular host of children's shows and late night movies on KSHB (formerly KBMA) in Kansas City. Ed Muscare was later convicted of child molestation. Someone apparently started a thread about Ed Muscare on social news website and my entry on independent stations was among the links that were posted.

In some respects, it makes sense to me that "The Rise and Fall of the Independent Television Station" was posted as a link on reddit, as it is one of the few places on the web that mentions Ed Muscare at all. After all, his primary claim to fame is that he was a television host in the Kansas City market who was later revealed to be an outright monster. Only Missourians who grew up watching him would think to google his name or read about him, much less write about him. Indeed, if one googles "Ed Muscare," "The Rise and Fall of the Independent Television Station" is the second highest ranked result (the first is an article from Tony's Kansas City on the old late night horror TV shows on that city's television stations).

In other respects, however, I must admit that I am shocked that reddit produced about 1680 hits on A Shroud of Thoughts. After all, only Missourians who grew up watching Ed Muscare would even think to google him or read about him. I can only conclude that there must be more interest in Ed Muscare than I had ever dreamed and reddit is much more popular than I had ever thought.

Of course, I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about A Shroud of Thoughts having set a new record in its number of daily hits. I am happy that it did receive 1680 hits. After all, every writer wants his work to be read by as many people as possible. That having been said, I am a bit dismayed that the vast majority of hits were on what is a very unhappy topic--a formerly beloved TV host who turned out to be the basest of criminals. I guess I can only hope that the next time I get around 1680 hits, it's on a topic of a more positive nature!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Twilight of Some Brands

Yesterday Raquelle of Out of the Past posted a link on Twitter to an article on 24/7 Wall Street entitled "Twelve Major Brands That Will Disappear." The article makes for interesting, if frightening reading. 24/7 Wall St. examined 100 different major brands facing difficulties. They examined the records of those companies that are public or divisions that are owned by public companies. They looked at information on sales and how much competition there was in the market for each brand and how much such competition is growing. They also consulted experts and looked at the histories of the brands themselves. In the end they came up with a list of twelve brands that they do not believe will survive the end of next year. Many of these brands are big names. Indeed, some of these brands are outright institutions.

As might be expected, two of the brands in 24/7 Wall St.'s "dead pool" are in the automotive industry. 24/7 Wall St. expects GM to close Saturn, its poorest performing division. I very seriously doubt that a Saturn closure would disturb many, but then 24/7 Wall St. also assertrs that when Chrysler LLC restructures, the Chrysler brand will be gone. Quite simply, it is weaker than either either Dodge or Jeep. For those who love classic American cars, this is something may be something of a tragedy. The Chrysler brand came into being when Walter P. Chrysler reorganised the ailing Maxwell Motor Company into Chrysler Corporation in 1925. Throughout the years the Chrysler division produced some of the United States' best loved cars, including the Airflow, the Imperial, the Cordoba, and the Lebaron. Arguably, with the passing of Chrysler we will not simply see the death of a brand, but the passing of an automotive institution.

Another brand that 24/7 Wall St. does not expect to survive the end of next year is also an institution, albeit a magazine rather than automotive company. With magazine sales down, 24/7 Wall St. notes that Hearst will have to cut some of its weakest magazines, among which number Esquire. Esquire was founded in 1932 by Arnold Gingrich as a somewhat racey men's magazine (think of Playboy if it had been founded in the Thirties). In fact, among its greatest claims to fame were its pin-ups, created by such artists as Vargas and George Petty. Esquire would eventually become somewhat respectable, with contributions from such greats as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. In the Sixties it would help pave the way for the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and John Sack. In creating Playboy, Hugh Hefner looked to Esquire for inspiration. If Hearst does indeed cancel Esquire, it will mean the end of a giant in the field of magazines.

A less well known magazine, but one that is as much an institution as Esquire, also faces cancellation. Architectural Digest was founded in 1920 as a Southern California annual publication. Despite its title, Architectural Digest primarily focused on interior design rather than architecture proper. Its readership has generally tended to be upscale and style conscious individuals. Throughout the years it has become a fairly important force in interior design. Unfortunately the past few years have not only seen a decline in home sales, but also in home decorating--especially expensive home decorating. And as noted earlier, magazine sales are in decline. 24/7 Wall St. then expects Architectural Digest to be gone before next year ends.

Also established in 1920 is another company that 24/7 Wall St. believes will not last much longer. Eddie Bauer was founded by the outdoorsman of the same name in 1920. It soon established itself as a force in the field of outdoor clothing. In 1940 they patented the first quilted down jacket. In 1942 Eddie Bauer developed the B-9 Flight Parka for the U. S. Army Air Corps and supplied the Army with everything from backpacks to pants. Eddie Bauer was the first independent company ever employed by the Army and the first allowed to place its logo on an Army uniform. Unfortunately, Eddie Bauer has been losing a good deal of money of late, so much that 24/7 Wall St. guesses it won't survive.

24/7 Wall St. also puts forth that another American airline will go bankrupt, and they believe it will be United Airlines. United Airlines has a history that goes all the way back to Walter Varney's air mail service (Varney Airlines) established on April 6, 1926. In 1930 the company began carrying passengers as well as mail, even hiring Registered Nurse Ellen Church as possibly the first flight attendant. United Airlines became one of the first national carriers. TWA ceased to exist in 2001. Pan-Am in 1991. Sadly, it seems that United might join them.

Other brands on 24/7 Wall St.'s dead pool are not as old as Chrysler, Esquire, Architectural Digest, Eddie Bauer, or United Airlines, but they have had an impact on American culture nonetheless: Old Navy (only dating to 1994, but well known for its interesting adverts), Budget Rent a Car (only founded in 1958, but among the best know car rental companies), and Palm, Inc. (founded in 1992 and well known for the Palm Pilot). While these brands may not be as old or as respected as Chrysler, Esquire, or United Airlines, they have left their mark nonetheless.

Of course, it is tempting to second guess 24/7 Wall Street. I must admit, that as someone who has always loved Chrysler products (my first car was a Plymouth Valiant and my current one is a Dodge Spirit), I find it hard to believe that Chrysler LLC would put an end to the Chrysler brand--at the very least they would continue manufacturing the Town and Country, the brand's best selling model. But then again, the company shut down DeSoto in 1961 and Plymouth in 2001. Would it be too much to believe that they would shut down Chrysler as well? It also seems too frightening to consider that Hearst would cancel Esquire. After all, the magazine has a long and illustrious history. Unfortunately, we are talking about Hearst Corporation. The company not only closed such magazines as Teen (one of the earliest magazines directed at teenage girls--founded 1954) and Quick and Simple, but newspapers such as The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (founded 1863). Would they really spare Esquire?

If these brands do cease to exist, it will be a source of unhappiness for many. Obviously it will mean the loss of jobs. Old Navy has over 1000 stores across the United States and Canada. Eddie Bauer has about 550 stores throughout the United States. One can only imagine the number of people employed by such giants as Chrysler and United Airlines. Any time a brand ceases to exist it means the loss of work, and that can be crippling in these economic times.

While not nearly as important as the loss of jobs, it must also be noted that many of these brands have their own fiercely loyal followings. There may well be individuals who have been subscribed to Esquire for literally decades. I have a friend who is a big fan of Old Navy. I myself love Chrysler cars. Whether because of the quality of their products, their history, or their prestige, brand names actually do mean a good deal to people. Indeed, many remember the gnashing of teeth and pulling out of hair that occurred when Coca-Cola tried to replace their classic brand with "New Coke."

Beyond brand loyalty, however, there is another reason to mourn the passing of particularly well established brands. Brands that have a long history, that long ago infiltrated the American psyche, form a link to our past. They are a bit of constancy in a sometimes crazy world that serve to remind us that no matter how bad times get, there are some things that do survive. They help form a link to our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, and those who have gone before us. While I have never even read a copy of Architectural Digest, I would be sad at its passing simply because it has lasted 87 years. It was around at a time when Louise Brooks was still acting. It survived the Great Depression. It saw The Beatles and other British bands invade America. Like many of the other brands 24/7 Wall Street discusses, it is an institution. If it were to close, then we would lose another link to our past, another reminder of the constancy of things.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Writer J. G. Ballard Passes On

(WARNING If you are a bit uncomfortable with content that is rated at least PG-13, you might want to pass this blog entry by....)

Sometimes controversial writer J. G. Ballard passed today at the age of 78. He had been ill for many years and was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006.

J. G. Ballard was born James Graham Ballard on November 15, 1930 in Shanghai, China. His father was managing director of the China Printing and Finishing Company, a subsidiary of the Calico Printers Association. Ballard grew up in the Shanghai International Settlement, an area controlled by foreign interests including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and others. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Ballard and his family were interned in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre (an internment centre where the Japanese sent British, American, and European citizens) for two years. In 1946 Ballard went with his sisters and his mother to the United Kingdom. They lived outside Plymouth and he attended The Leys School in Cambridge. His mother and sisters returned to China to be with his father after a few years. Ballard remained in England. He majored in medicine at King's College, Cambridge, wanting to become a psychiatrist.

While at university J. G. Ballard was already writing fiction. In May 1951, his second year at King's College, his story "The Violent Noon" won a crime story contest and was published in the student newspaper Varsity. This event made Ballard realise he preferred writing to medicine. in 1952 ge left King's College, Cambridge and went to the University of London to study English literature. Ballard was asked to leave the university before the year was even over, after which he took a job as a copywriter for an advertising agency and an encyclopaedia salesman. In 1953 he joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to Royal Canadian Air Force flight-training base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. It was there that he started reading science fiction in American science fiction magazines. It was while he was in the RAF that he wrote his first science fiction story, "Passport to Eternity."

In 1954 Ballard left the RAF and returned to the United Kingdom. It was in 1956 that he had his first science fiction story, "Prima Belladonna," published in New Worlds. For the next few years Ballard would be an assistant editor on he scientific journal Chemistry and Industry and an editor of Ambit. It was in 1960 that Ballard finally decided to become a full time writer. His first novel, The Wind from Nowhere, was published in January 1962.

Ballard's second novel, The Drowned World, was published later in 1962. The novel established Ballard as a leading voice in the New Wave movement within science fiction (a movement which was more literary and artistic than previous sci-fi and encouraged a large degree of experimentation). It was in 1969 that one of J. G. Ballard's more controversial books was published. The Atrocity Exhibition was a collection of experimental pieces centred on a psychotic individual as he tried to make sense of such events as Marilyn Monroe's suicide and the Kennedy assassination. His following work would prove no less controversial. Crash (1973) was a novel centred on characters who become sexually aroused by car crashes--both real and staged. The work was so disturbing that a publisher's reader actually recommended, "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!" The novel was adapted by David Cronenberg as a film in 1996 and may have served as the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (part of the film Grindhouse).

For the most part Ballard's works continued to be dystopian in nature and more often than not violent. High Rise (1975) centred on a futuristic, high-rise apartment building where the inhabitants turn violent after the high-rise starts to deteriorate. Hello America (1981) focused on a European steamship, the SS Apollo, sailed to North America following an ecological disaster. Ballard finally broke into the mainstream with his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun in 1984, which drew upon his experiences growing up in Shanghai. The novel was adapted as a movie by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Ballard's final novel, Kingdom Come, was published in 2006. His autobiography, Miracles of Life, was published last year.

J. G. Ballard was one of the most original writers of his time and certainly one of the most controversial. His works tended to be dystopian in nature, set in a world where the advance of technology does not improve the quality of human life, but merely degrades mankind even more. In Ballard's novels advances do not improve human life, but merely deteriorate its worth and even bring about violence and perversity. Although indubitably dark, Ballard's work would prove very influential. He is considered a forerunner of the subgenre known as cyberpunk. His influence can be seen on writers ranging from Martin Amis to Jean Baudrillard. Ballard would even have an influence on modern music. Hawkwind produced a song titled "High-Rise," based on Ballard's novel of the same name. Many of Joy Division's songs were drawn from Ballard's works (most obviously "The Atrocity Exhibition"). Andrew Eldritch of The Sisters of Mercy, has admitted that Ballard influenced his music. Radiohead posted excerpts from Kingdom Come on their blog in the months leading up to the release of their 2007 album In Rainbows. Although not the most optimistic of writers, J. G. Ballard had a profound effect on both modern literature and music.