Friday, September 30, 2011

Blasts From The Past

The current quest for sustainable sources of energy comes from a critical awareness that the availability of fossil fuels is rapidly diminishing. Once used, fossil fuels have no further value. Unlike so many other things from the past, they're gone forever.

While George Santayana once claimed that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," William Clay Ford had a different take on history.
"The further and faster the human race goes, the more difficult it becomes to remember its receding and ever-expanding past. To neglect that heritage is to risk a future in which young people find themselves without a means of building on the firm and reassuring foundation of the past."
An 1896 Ford Quadricycle on display at the Henry Ford Museum

Had it not been for the zeal with which Ford's grandfather, Henry Ford, collected traces of America's Industrial Revolution, there might be little left to remind us of our not too distant history. Their pattern of display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan is vastly different from that seen in most other science museums. In Dearborn, visitors can observe minute changes in technology and design. The evolution of dictating equipment proves fascinating when compared to the technology of today's electronic office.

An indicator of the breadth of Henry Ford's collection is to note that, during the first few years of the museum's life, nearly 80% of its visitors could recognize and identify most of the objects on display from their personal experience. At best, no more than 5% of today's visitors can readily identify the same objects.

The recent news that the wreck of the SS Gairsoppa had been discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration (which had an exclusive search-and-salvage contract with the British government) gained international attention this week for one simple reason: The British merchant ship was carrying 7 million ingots of silver (now worth approximately $210 million) when it was torpedoed and sunk on February 16, 1941.

Anyone who routinely visits garage sales, flea markets, used clothing stores, or shops on eBay knows that there is hidden treasure to be found in recycling items that have gone out of fashion. In the following audio clip, Fanny Brice sings the "Second Hand Rose," a song she introduced during the Ziegfield Follies of 1921.

Whether souvenirs of the past were victims of planned obsolescence, passing fashions, or a death in the family, many have gained new life in the loving hands of people whose taste might be classified as "vintage" or "retro." Collectors often develop an insatiable appetite for such items.

An early desk stapler

Originally written by Lionel Bart for his musical adaptation of Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger's lyrics for Act I's "Consider Yourself" take on new meaning with regard to those who have a passion for collecting things. From trinkets to tchotchkes, from the discovery of a flapper dress to the purchase of a rare comic book, one can almost hear the devout collector singing:
"Consider yourself at home
Consider yourself one of the family
We've taken to you so strong
It's clear we're going to get along!
Consider yourself well in
Consider yourself part of the furniture
There isn't a lot to spare
Who cares? Whatever we've got we share!

If it should chance to be that we should see
Some harder days, empty larder days
Why grouse?
Always a chance we'll meet somebody to foot the bill,
Then the drinks are on the house!

Consider yourself our mate
We don't want to have no fuss,
For after some consideration, we can state
Consider yourself one of us!"
In a city with so much Victorian architecture, it's no surprise that many San Franciscans have developed an acute desire to become the curators of their own lives. Some like to spend their weekends "garage sailing" for items of interest (the fruits of their shopping adventures can often be seen at special costume events like the opening night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival). Others have transformed their homes into miniature museums that cater to a highly specialized sense of style.

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fascinating video clip about Adam Savage and Stanley Kubrick shows how the creative collector's mind can be driven by an artistic vision that others might misdiagnose as obsessive-compulsive disorder. And although budget problems forced the Philoctetes Center for The Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination to close its physical space and discontinue its programs, the organization's website and YouTube channel (which includes lengthy panel sessions devoted to "The Sensibility of the Collector" and "The Mind of the Collector") can still be accessed online.

What separates an organized hoarder from a collector with a more curatorial bent? The following video demonstrates how difficult it might be to find the answer.

No matter what a person likes to collect (wedding cake ornaments, miniature toy trains, dinosaur sculptures), anyone who has amassed a large collection of tchotchkes will instantly fall in love with a Canadian documentary entitled Unlikely Treasures. Written and directed by Tally Abecassis, this delightful indie gem (which will be screened at the upcoming 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival) should not be missed.

A woman stands before her collection of suitcases

It's hard to tell which part of this film is more fun: the collectors or their collections. Each has a story to tell which is more eccentric than the last. Some claim to have been born with "the collecting gene."

As Marilyn Gelfman-Karp explains: "I hear the call of objects all the time. They talk to me and say 'take me home!'" Marilyn is certainly no exception. Among the collectors featured in Unlikely Treasures are:

Viewers of Antiques Roadshow will especially like Abecassis's documentary, which includes a visit to a fascinating three-story home/museum in Greensboro, North Carolina that recycles collections into unique pieces of art, and the City Reliquary in Brooklyn.

At a mere 52 minutes in length, Unlikely Treasures contains more joy, curiosity, and appreciation of the past than you'll find in most films. By the time the final credits roll, many viewers will be grinning from ear to ear. Here's the trailer:

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American Conservatory Theatre just opened its season with a new production of Once in a Lifetime. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's comedy opened on Broadway on September 24, 1930, nearly a year after the great Wall Street Crash of 1929. With the economy in the toilet, and vaudeville consistently losing audience share to silent film, the advent of talking pictures sounded the death knell for the careers of many performers who had built their careers on the Keith, Orpheum, and Albee circuits.

Eight decades following its Broadway premiere (a film version was released in 1932), Once in a Lifetime now has the nostalgic gloss that applies to an era whose visual images ran the gamut from Busby Berkeley's black-and-white movie musicals to Dorothea Lange's portrait of Florence Owens Thompson entitled "Migrant Mother."

"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange

Once in a Lifetime begins as three vaudevillians decide to abandon their search for work in Manhattan and head for Hollywood.
  • May Daniels (Julia Coffey) is obviously the brains of the operation. With talking pictures starting to take hold, May has developed a scheme to open an acting school that will teach silent film actors how to speak onscreen.
  • Jerry Hyland (John Wernke) is obviously the muscle of the operation. He's good at networking, making connections and, having sold their vaudeville act for $500, pulling in the dough.
  • George Lewis (Patrick Lane) is, well, um, it's not all that clear just what George is. He's handsome, he's simple-minded, and people like him. In Hollywood, that might be all he needs to get ahead.
Jerry Highland (John Wernke), May Daniels (Julia Coffey)
and George Lewis (Patrick Lane) in Once in a Lifetime
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As they travel cross country by rail, the trio encounters:
  • Helen Hobart (René Augesen), a Hollywood gossip columnist who knew May when they were much younger.
  • Susan Walker (Ashley Wickett), an attractive and severely untalented young woman who wants to become a movie star.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, they have to deal with:
  • Mrs. Walker (Margo Hall), Susan's clueless mother.
  • Lawrence Vail (Alexander Crowther), a frustrated playwright who may be drawing a handsome salary from a movie studio, but has no idea what he's doing in California.
  • Phyllis Fontaine (Marisa Duchowny) and Florabel Leigh (Jessica Kitchens), two silent screen actresses with a fatal combination of bad diction and even worse accents.
  • Herman Glogauer (Will LeBow), a studio mogul who made the mistake of refusing to invest in Vitaphone.
Lawrence Veil (Alexander Crowther) and May Daniels (Julia Coffey)
in Once in a Lifetime (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With his large cast playing multiple roles as they jump in and out of Alex Jaeger's stylish costumes, Mark Rucker has directed this farce with a masterful touch. Not only he is blessed with Daniel Ostling's wonderfully evocative sets, with the help of some keen video work by Alexander V. Nichols, Rucker has managed to hilariously incorporate numerous black-and-white film clips into the production.

If certain actors stand out above the others in this large cast, it is due to their superb comic timing and/or  sharp characterizations. René Augesen's gossip columnist is a deliciously overblown creation while Nick Gabriel triumphs in drag as Miss Leighton, a clueless studio receptionist.

Helen Hobart (René Augesen) and Miss Leighton (Nick Gabriel)
in Once in a Lifetime (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With enough chronological distance from the 1930s, Kaufman & Hart's farce may have lost some of its timeliness, but none of its bite. The passage of time has even made it possible for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to offer free screenings of silent films prior to each Friday performance of Once in a Lifetime.

The show itself is a visually grand romp and frolic performed with the gusto of the Marx Brothers movie. It brings to the stage the kind of wit that is sorely missed on Broadway. Performances continue through October 16 (you can order tickets here). In the meantime, here's the trailer:

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