Saturday, March 25, 2017

Hit Makers



I wish I had read this book in a paper copy rather than on my Kindle.  Had I done so, the book would be marked up with highlighted sections, and many of its pages would be folded -- but at least I could go back without tap-tap-tapping, page by page, to find the parts I want to see again.  

Yes, it's that interesting.  You may have read about some of the great anecdotes in "Hit Makers:"  Why seven particular artists are regarded as the finest Impressionists painters, why "Rock Around the Clock" was the pop music phenom of 1955 and many others. 

But what is most interesting is the analysis of why certain pieces of music and art and even advances in science succeed while other, possibly better ones, do not.

One concept is "optimal newness," the idea that people like new things but only if those things include older, familiar elements.  In everything from pop music to scientific inquiry, people have a much easier time absorbing incremental change than revolutionary change. 

Here's a quote from physicist Max Planck:  "Truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

(This made me think about the Missoula floods, enormous events that carved out much of the Pacific Northwest at the end of the last ice age.  When I was in college, these were received as fact, but the high school teacher-turned-geologist who researched and established them early in the last century was a pariah in his field for decades because his conclusions seemed inconceivable to other geologists who never had visited that part of the country.)

Thompson refers also to Raymond Loewy, the 20th century designer who came up with successful new looks for cigarette packages, Sears refrigerators and Air Force One, among many others.  

Loewy coined the expression MAYA,  "most advanced and yet achievable." He understood that people could accept only a limited amount of change, and this understanding led to his remarkable success.

There are many ideas in this book, too many to cover here, but I want to mention another concept that interested me.


Viral Schmiral

Author Thompson notes that the few old news funnels -- radio and then television networks and major publications -- have given way in the digital age to thousands if not millions of information outlets.

He notes further that we speak now of new ideas or songs "going viral," and he pretty much demolishes the idea.  From the book:

"In epidemiology, 'viral' has a specific meaning.  It refers to a disease that infects more than one person before it dies or the host does.  Such a disease has the potential to spread exponentially.  One person infects two.  Two infect four.  Four infect eight.  And before long, it's a pandemic."

Except "going viral" is not what happens.  Among the millions of information outlets are some with extraordinary reach. Many of these outlets have celebrities' names on them. 

Now I will bring up a discussion inspired by "Hit Makers" but not from the book itself.

Several summers ago, we read that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge "went viral" and raised more than $200 million for disease research. The idea originated with a pro golfer who challenged a cousin to pour ice over her head and donate money to the ALS charity.  

But the result had nothing to do with viral spread.  
  
Instead of growing by twos and fours and eights, the Ice Bucket Challenge was spread by celebrity YouTube videos and Twitter challenges that were reported in the news and drew in non-celebrity participants. Some of the big names: 
           
           Bill Gates, who now has 34 million Twitter followers 
           LeBron James, 37 million Twitter followers
           Oprah Winfrey, 36 million Twitter followers
           Kim Kardashian West, 50 million Twitter followers
           Lady Gaga, 67 million Twitter followers
           Taylor Swift, 84 million Twitter followers
           Justin Bieber, 92 million Twitter followers

By contrast, the golfer who dreamed up the challenge has 236 Twitter followers.  His idea was smart, but its huge success relied on prominent people who broadcast it through their great big megaphones. 


Note


Derek Thompson, who graduated from college in 2012, has done a remarkable job with this book.  He draws from philosophy, psychology, science, history, business, popular culture and media trends to make thoughtful observations about little-discussed but interesting themes.  The book has a nice balance of interesting stories and explanations; it is sprawling in scope, but always readable.  I look forward to reading more of this guy's work.  


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Platform Shoes -- Then and Now

Now-historical Nasty Gal platforms

If you are like me, you tend to think that fashion trends date to the time you first noticed them.  In my case, I thought platform shoes were introduced in my lifetime.  

The joke's on me, though.  Platforms are old, old news.  European women were wearing such shoes during the Renaissance.  They were called chopines.

Chopines

Here you see a pair of chopines, a shoe style popular between the 15th and 17th centuries.




This particular pair is new, of course, and built based on observations of shoe remnants and old documents. These chopines can be seen at the big Kunsthistorishes Museum in Vienna. 

      That green pair makes me think of fashion designer Marc Jacobs and his recent
      penchant for exaggerated platform boots, which might well have been inspired 
      by chopines.  Below is an example from the most recent collection.




      I don't think Jacobs expects to sell many of these boots.  They seem to function 
      as background details in promotions of more conventional handbags and dresses. 


The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum is among several collections that have actual antique chopines.  Imagine walking down the street in shoes like these.  (For that matter, imagine keeping shoes like these and passing them down in the family for hundreds of years!)






Lore has it that chopines were worn by ladies of leisure.  They were practical shoes in that they protected one's feet during walks along dirt roads in the days when thoroughfares were decorated with mud, donkey manure and whatever garbage people had tossed out their windows.

The shoes were impractical, however, in that wearers were likely to teeter and fall.  (See Marc Jacobs, above.) Ladies in chopines traditionally were escorted by servants to protect against this eventuality. 


Symbolism

The wearing of chopines has been compared to the old Chinese practice of binding women's feet to keep them small or, ideally, tiny. In both cases, the result was to make women unable to maneuver; only wealthy men could afford wives who could not contribute to the family enterprise.

This seems to have led men of the age to regard women wearing chopines as particularly attractive.  A 19th century English etymologist wrote this:  

      "The noise of the Chopine -- the creaking of this Shoe, seems to have made a very 
      lively impression on the Spanish imagination; as we find it applied in familiar language 
      to express the satisfaction which is enjoyed by the presence of a woman in the house."


Chopines/Platforms of the Moment

Here are some of this spring's platform sandals.

Balmain





Salvatore Ferragamo



Proenza Schouler




Marco de Vincenzo




None of these shoes is all that unusual.  Platforms, especially platform sandals, have become wardrobe staples.  It makes sense for fashion houses to release new versions every year.  


Note: Chopine Humor

William Shakespeare was aware of the styles of his day.  He managed to work a chopine joke into "Hamlet," perhaps to leaven the heavy mood in much of the rest of the play.

In Act II, Scene 2, the Danish prince says this to an actor: 

       "What, my young lady and mistress! By 'r Lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven 
      than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine
          "Pray God, your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring."

The fun here is that the actor is a man who plays female parts; there were no women thespians at the Globe Theatre, or any other theater, in the bard's day.  Shakespeare teases the young man, noting that he is growing taller and suggesting that his vocal range may be trending lower, as adolescent boys' voices tend to do.  The implication is that the actor is aging out of female roles.

Here is a a dumbed-down, executive-summary translation of the same lines from something called "No Fear Shakespeare:"

      "Well hello, my young lady friend. You’ve grown as much as the height of a pair of platform shoes at least! 
           "I hope your voice hasn’t changed yet."





Sunday, March 19, 2017

MovieMonday: Beauty and the Beast



As expected, this was last weekend's most popular movie.  It is an energetic and beautiful remake of  Disney's 1991 feature-length cartoon and the follow-on play that ran on Broadway for 13 years. 

The source material is an 18th century French fairy tale whose theme, "beauty lies within," has resonated in dramas from "Cyrano de Bergerac" to "Groundhog Day." 

The film starts with a ballroom scene in which a shallow prince misbehaves and is turned into the titular beast by a sorceress.  It ends, neatly, with another ballroom scene after he and the other characters in his castle have been restored into the good graces of the fates.

In the second act, we meet the beauty, Belle, a book-loving young woman who lives with her widowed father in a lovely provincial town that she finds stifling.  An older man scolds her for helping a young girl learn to read.  A handsome soldier who is vain and dim pursues her, determined to marry her against her strong and sensible objections.  

Circumstances contrive to find Belle locked in the Beast's ominous castle where, even in June, the sky is dark and snow is falling.  Events proceed from there.

Disney demonstrated in last year's "The Jungle Book" that it could remake its cartoon classics with very realistic, largely animatronic jungle animals. In this movie, we get a computer-generated beast as well as a candlestick, furniture pieces and crockery with personalities.  Their lines are spoken by movie stars who are revealed at the end of the movie. 

The 1991 cartoon movie has been enhanced with three new songs and backstories for Belle and the Beast.  The imagery also is much more detailed, and is virtually perfect.  It's impossible to tell where the real ends and the CGI begins.  Quite an achievement. 

Other updates include the currently de rigueur "mighty girl" theme, which is certainly not inappropriate.  ("I'm not a princess," Belle says, echoing Moana from last year's Disney movie.)  I do wonder, now that the girl project has moved into kids' drama, when we are going to see boys excelling in battles and courageous derring-do, the kinds of stories they crave.  The only boy-centric movie trailer I've seen lately is a film project based on the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books.

 Lovely as it all is, I'm not sure what audience Disney is seeking here.  When I attended, there were young children in the theater, including a small girl in a yellow Belle costume.  I imagine she and the others already had seen the 1991 cartoon, which ran 84 minutes.  This new rendition is 45 minutes longer; it held my attention, but it may run long for young audiences.

(I looked online and found an egghead who said 95 minutes was the mean running time for a children's movie, with a standard deviation of 10 minutes on either side.  By this calculation, the 1991 cartoon movie was one standard deviation shorter than the average kids' show, and this new version is almost 3.5 standard deviations longer.  Make of this what you will.)


Notes

The appetite for the B&B "beauty lies within" theme is strong, as evidenced by Amazon's 20-page list of books with plots similar to that of the movie.  I looked at the first three pages, and here is what I found:

--The original fairy tale, translated, from 1740

-- More than a few women's romance novels with pictures of hunky men for cover illustrations

-- At least three sci-fi stories, including "a novella-length steamy romance set in a dystopian world where women are sold as property"

-- A high-school story with a "boy who feels like a freak and the witty, imperfect, wise trans girl he loves"

-- "A steamy 135,000-word contemporary gay May-December romance" in which the beast is a former Wall Street executive named Wolfram.

It is possible that "Fifty Shades of Grey," which I have not read, also fits the template.



Monday, March 13, 2017

MovieMonday: Logan




The backstory of this movie is detailed, intricate and way too involved for me to fit into a short report.  So let's narrow it down to basics.

"Logan" is the ninth or tenth movie starring Hugh Jackman as the title character, a mutant superhero whose special powers are retractable claws and the ability to heal immediately from injuries.  (The regeneration thing seems to be fading in this outing.)

Set in a dystopic 2029 when "The Statue of Liberty is over," Logan is trying to eke out a normal living as an El Paso limo driver when an agent of Transigen comes after him.  (Transigen is an evil organization that has pretty much exterminated all the mutants in the U.S., except the mutants Transigen keeps and develops to use as enforcers for its malign agenda.)

Logan crosses the border to an abandoned Mexican industrial site where his old friend, 90-something Charles Xavier, another mutant, is in declining health, physically and mentally.  The Transigen bad guys follow and then attack Logan, who escapes with Xavier and his caretaker, an albino named Caliban. 

A silent 11-year-old girl named Laura, also a mutant, comes into Logan's life.   She wants to join friends at a North Dakota place called Eden and to escape from there to Canada. 

The Logan team heads north on a road trip that features encounters with the pursuing Transigen team and with an honorable farm family whose members suffer for their kindness and generosity.  

And so it goes.

This is a superhero movie that takes itself very seriously.  Yes, it has the requisite battles with beheadings and various weapons, but it is grounded on American soil and in the western film genre, specifically the 1953 movie, "Shane." 

I haven't seen "Shane," but I looked it up.  It is the story of a man who wants a normal, humdrum life but whose sense of honor requires him to protect the people he admires and to defeat bad guys, which ultimately makes normal life impossible for him.  Like "Shane," "Logan" sets out to be a morality play with an emotional, human component.

Superhero fans, especially those who have followed actor Jackman's previous Logan portrayals, find this film deeply moving, reminiscent of classic myths and reflecting on the cost of heroism. 
   
I enjoyed "Logan" more than the usual superhero movie, but I would have liked for the bad guys to have been sketched out in more than the standard two dimensions.  With a running length of almost 2.5 hours, however, this movie didn't have room for any more complexity.  


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Extreme Pink



Pink is a perfectly nice color.  The pink above, for example, was one of Pantone's colors of the year for 2016.  

I have seen men wearing pink shirts with suits and jeans, and they looked just fine.  Many women wear a lot of pink, which is also fine, but you can go too far with the color.

I realized this some years ago when I had a lunch date with a woman who showed up wearing a pink leather skirt suit with matching pink leather shoes and a pink leather handbag.  She was a nice person, but still -- too much is too much. 


Now, as a public service, I offer warnings against other unfortunate applications of the color.  

1) This is a hot pink piece of advertising that has been parked near the Whole Foods store in my neighborhood for years now.  If I were looking for a housecleaner, I would NOT call this number. 






2) A car that looked like the one below passed me on the street two weeks ago.  Yes, it's a Hello Kitty Smart car, in pink.  



This is not my photograph.  I was so busy goggling that I didn't have time to pull out my cellphone.  In the moment I thought to myself, I can't believe somebody customized an automobile with a Hello Kitty motif. 

But when I looked online I found several copies of the same car.  I doubt seriously that these cars rolled off a Mercedes Benz assembly line.  More likely, some entrepreneur identified a niche demand, obtained copyright permission from the Sanrio company and decorated some Smart models for a small number of willing buyers. 

Personally I would not want to be seen in a Hello Kitty car unless I had a gunshot wound and there was no ambulance to take me to the emergency room.  Even then, I would wear a scarf and dark glasses. 


3) I saw this in a parking lot last week.  Yes, it is a pink motorcycle or, rather, a pink Vespa, which is sort of a toy motorcycle.  




I did not see the Vespa's owner, but I'm pretty sure it is a young woman.   I do wish I had met her because I would have liked to share some advice with her about pink leather business suits.


Addendum for My Friends in the Northeast

Yet another winter storm, this one carrying as much as 10 inches of snow, is expected Tuesday.  

I was in Chicago around this time a couple years ago.  There had been no snow recently, and no snow was expected.  What I did see, however, were signs like this all around the Loop. It made me wish I had thought to pack a helmet, perhaps even a pink Vespa helmet.



I never have seen warning signs like this in Manhattan.  So it could be worse.



Thursday, March 9, 2017

Norwegian by Night


Here's the premise of this book:  An 82-year-old, possibly demented Jewish guy from New York City moves to Oslo and shortly afterward has an adventure in which he tours the country with a small boy who is being pursued by bad guys.

This is not the stuff of your typical novel, but it turns out to be a fine read -- well-written, carefully plotted and with a character for the ages.  

The book's star, Sheldon Horowitz, is invited by his granddaughter to join her and her husband, Lars, in Norway after the death of his wife.

His first reaction is what you might expect:  

"Stuff it," he tells the granddaughter.  

He relents just a moment later when Rhea tells him she is expecting a baby, his great-grandchild.  

So Sheldon travels to Norway, arriving in the long days of the early summer.  He speaks no Norwegian and is bewildered by the upbeat, easying Norwegians, including Rhea's amiable husband.  

Here is what the reader learns early on about Sheldon Horowitz.

-- He was a Marine sniper during the American landing at Inchon in the Korean War.

-- His beloved son and only child, Saul, died fighting in Vietnam.

-- Everyone is worried that Saul has old-age dementia, although the grandson-in-law is not so sure.

These things may not sound like the stuff of great narrative, but they come back again and again and are fleshed out in much greater detail as the plot proceeds.   


-----

When the book opens, Sheldon has been in Norway for three weeks.  He doesn't speak the language, he doesn't like being one of only 1,000 Jews in the whole country and he complains frequently.  When he learns that his granddaughter has had a miscarriage, he goes to his room and sobs, alone.

Also during this period, Sheldon hears loud fighting between a Balkan man and woman in the apartment upstairs. 

One day, when Rhea and Lars are away, there is a particularly violent exchange. The woman leaves her apartment and winds up on Sheldon's doorstep.  He offers shelter to her and her small son.  When the woman's tormenter returns and kicks down the door, the woman refuses to leave or to hide.  Sheldon and the son listen in a closet as she is killed.  

Sheldon understands the child is in danger.  His mother's killer and several associates are outside the apartment complex, waiting.  Sheldon takes the boy out the back way, and they go on the lam.

-----

For a man who spent his career repairing watches in New York, Sheldon shows himself to be quite resourceful, getting the boy out of the neighborhood, then out of Oslo and then around the southern part of the country, first in a "borrowed" boat and then a tractor.  

The boy does not speak, and so Sheldon does the talking, rattling on about classic myths, the Torah, the New Testament (he calls the boy Paul) and Huck Finn's adventures on the Mississippi. 

Sheldon remembers and applies advice he heard as a young man from his drill sergeant. When he is perplexed, Sheldon has imagined conversations with his old friend, Bill, who needles Sheldon as he improvises his moves on the go.

In addition to the boy, Sheldon is accompanied by his regrets.  He blames himself for his failure to save the boy's mother, for the death of a friend in Korea and, most of all, for the loss of his son.  

Back at home, the granddaughter and her husband worry.  They leave their apartment with the battered door and head to their rural cabin, hoping to find Sheldon there.  

Meanwhile, a melancholy but careful police inspector studies the crime scene and begins her own search, assisted by a genial but less able colleague. 

For all his aching joints and crotchety manner, Sheldon is funny, deeply human and ultimately noble.  If he is succumbing to dementia, well, we all should hope to handle such decline so well. 


Note


Author Derek B. Miller studied the humanities in college and foreign policy afterward.  In his first book, "Norwegian by Night," he uses his unusual background to construct what is technically called a crime story involving Americans, Norwegians and Balkan refugees.  This is not the sort of expertise that your typical MFA-in-writing author can bring to a novel.

Miller's second book, pictured at right, was released this year.  It starts in the first Gulf War and then jumps 20 years with the return of an American soldier and a British newsman to Iraq.  This book also has been well-received. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

MovieMonday: The Lego Batman Movie



This is not a movie that I normally would see, but I may be an outlier.  In its first four weeks, it grossed $260 million worldwide, which is pretty remarkable for a film about little plastic toy characters.  

"The Lego Batman Movie" starts as most crimefighter stories do, by establishing the lead character's credibility as a battler of bad guys.  In this case, it amounts to 10 or 15 minutes of rockem-sockem action involving toy fighter jets and space thingies that is nearly incomprehensible.  

By the time that first act was over, I was pretty convinced that the show's creators lived on Skittles diets or possibly were full-fledged meth junkies.  

Then the movie switches gears.  There is a conversation in which the Joker demands that Batman acknowledge the Joker as his greatest enemy.  

Batman refuses.  "I don't do 'ships,'" he tells the Joker. "Relationships.  You are nothing to me."  The Joker, who apparently does do relationships, is very disappointed.

Then Batman goes back to his fabulous home and stares wistfully at a framed selfie of himself as a child with his late parents.  We realize that Batman is a lonely vigilante.

"Your greatest fear is being part of a family again," says his butler, Alfred.

Yes, you are reading this correctly.  The Lego Batman story is about about opening up your heart to other people, or, in this case, other plastic toys.  

Batman is rigid, tetchy and in denial.  His most memorable quote is "No no no no no no no no no no no."


(In a newspaper interview, Will Arnett, the gravel-voiced actor who speaks Batman's lines, said this: “Lego Batman doesn’t know that he is an animated character — and by that, I mean, I approached him as a character I’m playing with an inner life,” he said. “I’m not just talking in that voice.”
      (Let's not be unkind. Arnett would have to say that.  His job was to make Lego Batman seem like a genuine human being with a stunted emotional life.  I'm the cynic who wants to snicker when I read those words.)

The Batman softening-up project draws in orphan Dick Grayson and a new Gotham police chief who is both comely and teamwork-oriented. The film's scenes alternate between fast-moving action fights and group sessions exhorting Batman to open his heart and play nicely with others.


The movie also includes some Michael Jackson music and jokes to entertain adults. Batman's favorite adjective is "sick," whose current meaning, "awesome," may not resonate 10 or even five years from now.  We'll see.

In the end -- spoiler alert! -- Batman becomes a more fully human superhero.  As the credits roll, cute characters dance to a catchy song titled "Friends Are Family (That You Choose for Yourself.)" This is a good theme for a children's movie.  

A less admirable theme is the movie's promotion of Lego Batman products to children.  I just went online and found 40 Lego Batman building kits, watches, keychains and other delights.  


Notes

1) Lego is an 85-year-old Danish company that originally made blocks to stimulate children's creative impulses.  It went over to the dark side a long time ago and now mostly sells recipe kits with step-by-step instructions for building specific structures, vehicles and dioramas.

The blocks now are used by some artists, including Sean Kenney, who may be an original Lego kid who never lost his enthusiasm.  Here is one of his many, many Lego creations. 


Chinese artist Aie Weiwei used Legos to construct images of human rights victims and activists in a 2014 installation on the former site of the federal prison on Alcatraz Island. 



And a German artist, Jan Vormann, uses Legos to "repair" damage in old walls.  The results are interesting plays on the old and the new.




2) Among the previews shown before the "The Lego Batman Movie," was one announcing "The Emoji Movie," to be released later this year.  Sad but true.