97 Down the Road

The clue for 97 Down in the Sunday crossword was “1964 Tony Randall title role.” I consider it cheating to look up puzzle answers, but this one had me stumped. So I succumbed and found it: Randall starred in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, a movie I’d never heard of. So I read more and thus began a journey down a road I hadn’t planned on taking. 

Dr. Lao’s first face is that of the Chinese ringmaster of a mysterious traveling circus that visits a dusty Western town. Casting a white actor to play an Asian character was of course typical for Hollywood in that era. But Randall’s talent, plus the special effects and Oscar-winning makeup, apparently make the film still watchable if you can get past the racist cringe factor.

As I read more, I saw that the director was George Pal and the link confirmed that he was the same George Pal of Puppetoon fame. Famous in my eyes, anyway, because of the mesmerizing stop-motion animation techniques he employed in his production of dozens of short Puppetoon films for Paramount in the 1940s. They were a favorite part of my TV diet in various kids shows in the 50s and 60s.

A recurring character in Pal’s series is Jasper – a wide-eyed African-American boy whose depiction is as racist a stereotype as one can imagine. Pal was reportedly shocked when, even in his time, people were offended. Apparently he was a good-hearted man, and the themes of many of his films (including Dr. Lao) are uplifting. But that’s the weird thing about good intentions without awareness: I’m sure Pal didn’t intend to cause any harm with his Puppetoon titled “Jasper and the Watermelons” …

I’m not sure how many of the Puppetoons that I innocently consumed in my childhood included Jasper and other racial stereotypes. But they peek through the haze of my fuzzy memories and I know that they and the surrounding culture shaped me in ways that I struggle to understand and counteract to this day. 

I’m convinced that most people want to be good, and few ever intentionally choose to cause harm – including Pal with his films. But those of us who are adults sure need to grow up. Too many are willfully blind. Don’t get me started about the battles against teaching America’s full history because some white parents don’t want their kids ever to be uncomfortable about the subject of race.

Then again, there is a growing cult that fetishizes hate and violence. A movement that wants to “own the libs” and drink “liberal tears” and where the cruelty is the point. What the hell. But the weird thing is this: I’ll bet that most of those folks also see themselves as good, and in other contexts might be “very fine people” as The Former Guy once famously said. But viewing yourself as good doesn’t make it so.

I’ll take a rest stop here. 97 Down took me down this road. We journey onward. 

Baltimore: The Summer of 1974, a Tugboat and a WWII Massacre

Here I am in Baltimore, as a tag-along spousal unit while Maggie attends an international educational conference. We’re staying in Harbor East, adjacent to the city’s famous Inner Harbor area. From our 29th floor hotel window, we can see a large golden monument down below: The National Katyn Memorial. More on that in a bit.

National Katyn Memorial to the 20,000+ Polish officers massacred in 1940
National Katyn Memorial to the 20,000+ Polish officers massacred in 1940

To the east of us is the Fell’s Point neighborhood, a historic maritime area dating back to the 1700s. Today, it’s a tourist mecca, with beautifully restored old buildings, restaurants, cobblestone streets and waterfront paths.

Which brings me back to 1974. That spring, I was a freshman at Yale, writing a paper for my early-concentration seminar on 20th century American history. I was delving into the story of Arthur Bliss Lane, a diplomat who had bequeathed his papers to Yale. In my hours squinting at his letters, clippings and other material from the time, I focused on the mission that capped his long career. His last posting was as ambassador to Poland, from which he resigned in protest in 1947, believing that the West had abandoned that country to appease Stalin. In the years that followed, until his death in 1956, he was a staunch anti-Communist crusader. A particular focus was the Katyn massacre of over 20,000 Polish officers in the early part of WWII. Lane (and many others) contended that Stalin had ordered their executions in 1940 when the Soviets controlled Poland. But the Soviets maintained that the Nazis were guilty of the crimes, after the German invasion in 1941. The issue remained unresolved until 1990, when the Russian government finally admitted that Stalin was responsible.

But when I composed my paper in 1974, Nixon was president, the Cold War was in full swing, the Vietnam War raged, and the truth about Katyn was still buried. And my thesis was that Lane’s campaign to blame the Soviets was a product of postwar anti-Communist hysteria. I buttressed my case with many citations implicating the Nazis, and my confidence that McCarthyism had clouded Lane’s view of the facts. I was blissfully unaware of my own blinders as I wrote.

Meanwhile, end of spring term was rapidly approaching, and I was nowhere close to finishing. My professor gave me an extension to complete my paper at home. Meanwhile, I’d gotten a summer job as tugboat deckhand and was due at a dock in Newark NJ. On the eve of disembarking, I finally finished my paper in longhand, dumped it into my mom’s lap to type up (for which I will forever be grateful), and made it onto the boat at dawn the next morning.

Which brings me back to Fell’s Point. Our tugboat, the Betty Gale of the SC Loveland company, moved barges up and down the east coast, docking at ports from Norfolk VA up to Portsmouth, NH. By the mid-1970s, many of the once-thriving port areas in the cities we visited had fallen into post-industrial decay. So my memory of docking in Baltimore for an overnight was of cobblestones, and crusty old sailors in dive bars in a part of town that had seen better days.

Yesterday, as Maggie and her colleagues discussed innovations in boys’ education, I explored the various harbor waterfronts. I’m pretty sure that I found the exact slip where our tugboat tied up that summer night in 1974. And that Thames Street in Fell’s Point was where, along with my fellow deckhands, I had enjoyed a few beers and a sense of danger in the shadows, just the kind of adventure this 19-year-old kid was hoping for.

Where our tugboat may have tied up, Fell's Point, Baltimore
Where our tugboat may have tied up, Fell’s Point, Baltimore

Which brings me back to 2017. Of all the places we could have stayed in Baltimore, we end up at a hotel right next to the largest memorial to the victims of the Katyn massacre this side of the Atlantic, an event that I had gotten horribly wrong in the paper that I wrote in the spring of 1974. And just a few blocks away, the old seafaring district that I visited that very summer, as a college-boy-turned-macho-deckhand, happy to be back on solid ground with a few beers in my belly.

The summer of 1974. Much has changed. Fell’s Point is gentrified. What happened at Katyn is no longer a mystery, though no one was ever actually held accountable. As I write this, I’m thankful to revisit Baltimore in 2017, and for the new perspective on where I’ve come since 1974. Older, maybe wiser. Still a flaming liberal, but definitely humbler

Danimation October experiments

Finally spending some time back in my basement animation studio.

This one has some effects added. Maggie said the original (in brown) looked too turd-like. So I desaturated and added an electric blue difference matte, for a distinctly non turd-like effect. Unless you ate something really weird last night.

Been cleaning out stuff and finding hidden treasures around the house, including a package of five pull chains. Now that I’m back to animating, I see everything a bit differently these days, with each rediscovered object a possible animation “character” of sorts. Pull chains are awesome.

What can I say. I’ve been stuck in a rat and dinosaur stage for about 40 years now. I’m starting a cartooning class soon, and hope to expand my repertoire.

Occupy the Wind

Haven’t posted in a while, so here’s an oldie but goodie:

October 1, 2011 – the Occupy Wall Street march to the Brooklyn Bridge. As marchers on the road level were trapped and then arrested by the police, many of us on the walkway above took videos of the arrests. And then the police showed up and forced us off the walkway. As I was filming this, I heard a familiar tune and musician GioSafari walked into my shot. So I kept rolling and stayed with him. Serendipity ensued, resulting in this documentary music video.


Playing around in my new basement animation studio … preparing to do both stop-motion animation (such as “claymation”) … and drawn animation … and hybrids of each. Two quick tests:

These efforts harken back to my early teens when I first fell in love with making movies, especially animation. Professionally, I’ve done lots of software-based animation, mostly infographics of various sorts. But I haven’t done any animation of this sort in many years. So don’t be surprised if my new efforts are somewhat juvenile in quality (and content). But I’m loving the hands-on hand-made aspects.

Here’s my animation stand, cobbled together from various parts, both ancient and modern. Camera is a Panasonic GH3 controlled remotely using an iPad app:

Animation stand

Rock & Roll Coincidence #2: Ex Hex and My Daughter

Last week I was scouring the Best New Albums list at Pitchfork.com. Digging down into the second page, I came across an interesting review for “Rips” by Ex Hex, a female trio from Washington, DC. I’d never heard of them, but I listened to a couple of sample songs, liked what I heard, and bought the album as a download. As I listened, I also checked out the band’s website and Instagram feed. Among the Instagram images that I viewed was a video of guitarist Mary Timony roller skating (see below).

The very next day I spoke to my daughter Molly who is now based in Portland, OR, pursuing her career as a filmmaker. She filled me in on her recent gigs, including working on a music video … for a band called Ex Hex. If that wasn’t enough of a coincidence, she said that they had filmed at a roller rink. I mentioned seeing the Instagram video, and Molly said “Really? I remember them shooting that clip with a phone as I was walking past.” So I went back and looked at the clip, and sure enough, there’s Molly walking past on the right!

Continue reading Rock & Roll Coincidence #2: Ex Hex and My Daughter

Rock & Roll Coincidence #1: Neko Case and Prison Girls

Early in November, I flew to Nashville from Philadelphia for a documentary video job. On the plane I noticed a woman with distinctive tattoos on her arms. After we landed and got to the hotel downtown, the same woman was checking in just ahead of us. I heard the reservation clerk refer to a suite for Neko Case, and I realized that was who I was standing next to.

Later that evening at the hotel, I searched through my laptop iTunes music collection, since I knew I had an album by Neko Case. When I did the search, sure enough her album “Middle Cyclone” showed up. My playback settings were set to random, and the first song that played was “Prison Girls.”

The coincidence? We were in town to film at the Tennessee Prison for Women the very next morning.

Continue reading Rock & Roll Coincidence #1: Neko Case and Prison Girls