Sunday, January 25, 2009

Unsung heroes

Like many people I enjoy watching nature films on television. Like everyone else I am amazed and delighted, occasionally awed, by the spectacular shots of scenery, and animals doing everything animals do, sometimes up close and personal. This, in all kinds of weather, all kinds of terrain. And I have often thought, hey, somebody is taking that picture.

But so often we don't know who that somebody is. If there's somebody making some kind of trek – to the top of a mountain, or through a park or rain forest, or along a particular river – we may know who that person is, at least come to know who s/he is during the course of the program, as s/he talks to us about what is being seen and experienced, and the Significance of It All. Yes, this person is visiting these amazing, often dangerous places, proving himself or herself (most often himself) all kinds of intrepid, but hey, the photographer is right there with him! Sometimes ahead of him, so as to capture that moment the Intrepid Explorer takes the final steps up that impossibly steep stretch of mountain. Intrepid Photographer is right there, and lugging a bunch of heavy equipment in the bargain. And getting none of the glory.

And then there are the people-less programs like Arctic Bears, which I watched recently on PBS, or The Penguins of the Antarctic of a couple of years back. On these kinds of shows, you know you've got photographers working in extreme conditions. And what they give us are all these wonderful shots of mama polar bears sheltering baby polar bears, romping with them in the snow, teaching them how to scout for seals beneath the ice, then break through the ice to get at them. We get mind-boggling pictures of mama and papa Emperor penguins sheltering junior in the midst of blizzards, or making the very long march from the sea to the traditional breeding grounds.

And there are programs like this on lions, on gorillas; there are all those underwater programs about fish or seals or whales or reefs. In all of them our unsung heroes, the photographers, are producing spectacular work for our delight and edification.

Of course the photographers are listed in the credits at the end of each program, but how many of you out there in television land take note of who they are as the credits go by? (Indeed, how many of you pay any attention to the credits at all?) I know I never do, even if I've had one of my 'there's a photographer there, taking that incredible shot,' thoughts, at some point in the show. Even in movies, how many of us take note of who the photographer (called, in the movies, a cinematographer) was, even if the photography was sensational? I think of the fairly recent The Painted Veil, (cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh) with so many absolutely gorgeous shots. We know actors, we know directors, we don't know the people who make it possible for us to see the whatever it is. The only photographer I can think of offhand is James Wong Howe – who died in 1976 for heaven's sake – and even him I had to look up on the Internet, to make sure I was remembering his name correctly (I wasn't).

I was pleased to see included in a recent "trailer" (and why are they called that? They come before the actual film, do not trail after) of the upcoming Ken Burns program on our national parks, shots of photographers as they were doing their thing. We could see them all bundled up against the cold, or peering out of open helicopters, or bending over their cameras on steep, rocky slopes. This is the kind of acknowledgement I'd like to see more of, to remind us all of the eye and steady hand behind the beauty and the wonder.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A family affair

For several months I have been working on John Galsworthy's multi-volumed The Forsyte Saga. These books are not quick reads, like so many of today's best sellers. But I have gradually got caught up in the lives of this clan of upper middle-class English philistines, whose unifying code is that of possession. In the first book – A Man of Property – I got a bit tired of Galsworthy's constant use of the word 'property.' All right, already, I get the idea, I would think. The Forsytes – and all the other late-Victorian Englishmen like them – thought of everything in terms of property, from their own homes (in good, but un-showy neighborhoods), to fine furniture, paintings and brick-a-brack (how much these examples of property had cost and how much they would bring being what determined their value, rather than their intrinsic worth), to wives and offspring, to their good name. Life is all about acquiring these things, and keeping them, passing them on to the next generation.

It is the Forsytes' sense of family that ultimately pulls you in, in a way that I suspect is similar to the pull of The Sopranos. I suspect that what kept people tuning in to that show week after week had less to do with the criminal goings-on than the family melodrama. In The Forsyte Saga we get occasional glimpses at what's happening in the business world – except for the character "young" Jolyon, who is a painter, all the Forsyte men are of course businessmen -- as well as developments out in the wide world, such as the Boer War, waged in South Africa from 1899 to 1902, which impacted both business and the personal lives of people. For someone like me, who is totally uninterested in business, these practical, mundane matters, though they form the background for not only the lives of the Forsytes, but the England of the day, simply do not engage.

But the stiff, unlikable (although I consistently feel sorry for the man, because he just does not get it) Soames, turning his steps instinctively towards his elderly parents' home when his marriage falls apart, that grabs you. The way his sister, obsessed with fashion, and a fool about her ne're-do-well husband, turns to her brother when that loser of a husband runs off with a dancer; and later, during Soames' own time of trial, the way she offers genuine sympathy, even if it is only in taking Soames' outthrust hand in both of hers (the Forsytes are never demonstrative). These and so many more instances demonstrate the need people have for one another, and the essential role families play in providing people with a sense of rootedness, and identity, for better or for worse.

I think with the following little scene Galsworthy offers a telling explanation of the urge to perpetuate ourselves, beyond the perpetuation of the species instinct in us all. We are inside Soames' head: "That evening in Park Lane, watching his father dine, he was overwhelmed by his old longing for a son – a son, to watch him eat as he went down the years, to be taken on his knee, as James on a time had been wont to take him...To get old – like that thin, wiry-frail figure sitting there – and be quite alone with possessions heaping up around him; to take no interest in anything because it had no future, and must pass away from him to hands and mouths and eyes for whom he cared not a jot. No! He would force [his divorce] through now, and be free to marry, and have a son to care for him..."*

There is another insightful section that anyone with children must surely be able to identify with, representing as it does what is surely every parent's worst nightmare. It comes when "young" Jolyon – in some ways the least Forsyte-like of them, having been cut off years earlier for leaving his wife for the governess – learns of his son's death in the Boer War, not on the battlefield but of a fever:

"Gone out like a candle flame; far from home, from love, all by himself, in the dark. His boy! From a little chap always so good to him, -- so friendly. Twenty years old and cut down like grass – to have no life at all! ...

To die out there — lonely — wanting them – wanting home! This seemed to his Forsyte heart more painful, more pitiful than death itself. No shelter, no protection, no love at the last. And all the deeply rooted clanship in him, the family feeling and essential clinging to his own flesh and blood which had been so strong in [his own father] old Jolyon – was so strong in all the Forsytes – felt outraged, cut, and torn by his boy's lonely passing."**

I press on, from In Chancery to To Let, to see what happens next.

*Galsworthy, John, In Chancery, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969, p.210
**Ibid, p.219

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The New Year...

...begins with cold and wind, here in northern New England. When I got up this morning it was -1 degrees; with the wind chill factor, -20. This was according to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Weather Service. I listen to their reports every morning on the little weather radio Micheal got when he was working offshore, and wanted to stay abreast of weather conditions on the Gulf.

It’s now 12:45 in the afternoon, the sun is shining brightly, and it’s all of 8 degrees. Earlier, when I was lying in bed having my post-breakfast rest (preparing, and eating, pancakes, sausage, an egg, hot tea, and half an orange takes it out of you) I was listening to the wind, trying to decide what it sounded like. A low, steady roar, maybe like the traffic sounds people who live close to a busy, major highway grow accustomed to. Or a huge machine that runs all the time in the next building. No whistling, no howling. And it didn’t sound like the wind on Mull, which I would often listen to in the same way. That wind came in waves, off the sea, in deep thrumms. Thrumm...thrumm...thrummm.

I was very glad to be snug and warm in my little house. Admittedly, keeping warm, even indoors, involves wearing several layers of clothing, beginning with long johns, top and bottom. After all, you don't want the furnace running constantly! Am very glad I don’t have to go out today, having stocked up on food yesterday morning, on my way to work. It was supposed to snow later in the day, and I preferred not to have to stop off at the grocery in the middle of a snow storm. (In Maine so often ones activities are determined by the weather forecast.)

I just read that thirty minutes of shoveling snow burns 238 calories, the same as thirty minutes of high impact aerobics. Two weekends ago when we had our first major snowstorm, I spent close to an hour shoveling snow, with a thirty minute break in the middle because I felt spent (but the fellows I called to come finish the job for me hadn’t shown up, at the end of that half hour, and I’d gotten my wind back, so I went out and finished the job myself). It’s back-breaking work, especially given my current parking situation. More cars park in the little parking area in front of my house than was the case last year – more people living in the house next door than there were last year – so I have no place to put the snow. I have to walk each shovel-load either back to dump it in my yard, or across the street, to dump it on the piled-up snow over there. And this lady, as we all now know, is no spring chicken.

But hey, it’s burning as many calories as ice skating!