Thursday, February 28, 2008

Blood Not-so-simple. . .

Hold still.

I finally made it to the theatre to catch this year's"best picture," the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men." I'd missed it the first time it played in the area, and being a fan of the Coens from waaaaay back (we're talking "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona"), I'd let myself down by letting it pass by.

A week before, I viewed "Country's" Oscar rival, the best picture nominee, "There Will Be Blood." The two movies--both up for eight Oscars--are similar in many ways: both are male-dominated movies in which female roles are minimal. Both films feature extremely strong performances by the lead as well as supporting actors. Both are set in the west and are strong dramas pointedly tackling morality. And both films share endings that left the audiences. . .well, surprised.

"Blood" is a Citizen Kane-like tale of the clash of green and religion, documenting the rise and fall of oil man Daniel Plainview, a cunning, ruthless businessman who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, in more ways than one, to keep nothing in his way of building his petroleum empire. Though screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia") claims to have based this period (1900s-1930s) drama on the Upton Sinclair muckraker "Oil," this would appear to be a loose adaptation. Plainview is played by Daniel Day Lewis (Best Actor winner) , who completely loses himself in the role, morphing into a mid-career John Huston rasp and measured cadence. He can be a charmer--he hauls around his young adopted son H.W. to put worried communities at ease that he's a "family man" running a "family business" and he'd never do anything to harm their town with his wildcatting. But he's never planning less than a few steps ahead of his competitors who are not only other oil companies, but the local charismatic preacher, Eli Sunday ("Little Miss Sunshine's" Paul Dano, who becomes an obstacle to Plainview's plans that simply must be taken down before his parishioners. It is the battle between these two egos--neither one pure--that sets that stage for the movie's climactic scene and abrupt ending. The Oscar-winning cinematography by Robert Elswit, film editing by Dylan Tichenor, and original soundtrack by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood create an indelible sense of time and place. The photography is imply stunning, and Greenwood's music really adds to the strident and purposeful editing.

"No Country for Old Men", the Oscar winner, is a worthy rival. The faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's tale on evil and morality is perhaps the Coens' best recieved film. Director of photography Roger Deakins brought me back to west Texas once again. . . I swear I've inhabited this place before, and stayed at the cheap brick motels of Del Rio more than a couple of nights. "No Country" is first and foremost a chase movie: rural sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones, of course) and crazed hit man (Javier Bardem) with bad haircut and a novel murder weapon are both zeroing in on a West Texas knockabout (Josh Brolin) who stumbled upon a drug deal gone bad and ends up with a couple of million bucks in a briefcase. There's tension of course, lots of blood--visceral amounts of it--and a quiet side too as the laid-back sheriff is more intent on ruminating on the good old days of sherffin' and happy to let the DEA and other agencies to the heavy lifting. Typical of a Coen film, quirky characters and memorable dialogue abound.

The viewer senses that time is running out for the unlucky guy with the money, but when a climactic scene seems assured, the film just dies out. The open-ended conclusion to "No Country" made the Sopranos' finale seem like formulaic Hollywood by comparison. The small crowd in the showing I attended were clearly irritated by the way the film ended--"What the Hell?" was one of the milder comments hurled at the screen. This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy "No Country," rather that the quiet subplot featuring the philosophical sheriff had so lulled me into looking ahead for the next scene forwarding the story arc about the pursuit for the loot that I really wasn't paying too much attention when the screen went dark. I can't place the blame for this at the feet of the Coens--having not read the novel the film was based upon, I can only take the word of those who have in saying that the movie is fairly faithful to the book, and laud the Coens for not monkeying with it to create something "tidier."

He runs a "family business."

Which should have won the Oscar? The Coens deliver what you'd expect them to, while "Blood's" Anderson expands a body of work previously mired in contemporary Southern California self-absorption with a fine historical epic. While Anderson's ending was abrupt as well, it at least took the plot to a logical conclusion. I don't feel I should feel obligated after attending a movie to have to hustle myself onto the internet to read critics' interpretations of a film. With Anderson's "Blood," I didn't feel I had to. But with "Old Country," I felt it was the only way I could help make my way out of the existentialism they created. As one critic concluded, "It creaks with significance, but I left the cinema not entirely convinced that the glittering plaudits it has won are entirely deserved ."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Missed the special, didn't miss the show. . .

As they were: UP 6922, summer 1984. . .

My thanks to Whiskey, TX for calling me Wednesday morning with news of an impending Union Pacific officer's special led by the last active DDA40X Centennial locomotive. Unfortunately, I didn't pick up the phone, as I was crashed out feeling miserable as the flu that laid out E., M. and I. turned its sights on me. I appreciate the effort, Wes, even if I wasn't able to pick up the phone!

Among the railfans in Texas, seeing a Union Pacific Centennial is a pretty big deal. They never worked down here in regular service, so the 6936's trip through the Lone Star State was a once every few years sight.

I didn't feel too badly in missing the special. I'm lucky (?) to be old enough to remember them in regular service in the 1970s and 80s. I had the extreme good fortune of being in the right place at the right time when a handful were reactivated from storage in 1984 for a final year of operation. At the time, I was a photography intern in Boise, Idaho, close to the Centennial action on UP's lines across Idaho and Oregon. I spent most of my weekends pursuing the "Big Jacks" over the Blue Mountains and on Medbury Hill.

So, in lieu of the preserved 6936 on a shiny passenger car special in Texas, here's the 6922, large and in charge, roaring up the steep grade out of the Snake River gorge near Ticeska, Idaho in the summer of 1984 on a train of autoracks.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Second-Grade Political Junkie

A pre-Karl Rove era example of Karl Rove-style politics. . .in 1968.

Out of the big box of my old school papers, going back over 40 years came this gem: a military tank, topped by a guy hoisting a "We Want Nixon" sign, lobbing shells into a building labeled "Kenndy Headquters". Clearly, democracy best served from a smoking gun.

I guess kids were more politically involved back then, when your television set had only four channels (ABC, NBC, CBS, and NET--precursor to PBS). I don't really remember much from that political season. I do remember the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot, and how the neighborhood kids sat around on the front lawn wondering what it would be like to be shot in the head. And after hearing that doctors had to shave RFK's head to operate on the gunshot wounds, I remember taking scissors to the TIME magazine cover of RFK (by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein) and cutting his hair off.

The Lichtenstein cover: still vivid in my memories. . .

Let's face it, 1968 was just a fucked year. The war in Vietnam, the murders of Martin Luther King and RFK, and Nixon's eventually election. Politically, it was a year like no other--President Johnson unexpectedly deciding not to seek re-election, throwing the primary season into turmoil, party loyalties split among labor unions, peacenicks, minorities and southerners. Gene McCarthy and RFK actively pursued delegates through the primary process; vice president Hubert Humphrey sat most of these out, choosing to gather delegates at the national convention. With RFK dead, his supporters scattered to several other candidates, and Humphrey emerged from the riot-torn Chicago convention as the nominee, despite his unpopularity as an "establishment" candidate tarnished by the war. Ed Muskie of Maine was chosen as his running mate.

On the Republican side, it was Tricky Dick Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller leading into the convention. Nixon had a commanding lead; a planned Reagan-Rockefeller challenge to Nixon fell apart when neither candidate would endorse the other, and Nixon chose Spiro Agnew of Maryland to round out the ticket.

Despite the large electorial college victory by Nixon, the popular vote difference was far tighter: around 500,000 votes, or 0.5%. Nixon came to office on a "Law and Order" platform, and he didn't disappoint his supporters, as the next six years of his presidency were among the most criminal in our nation's history. Unintentionally, I guess, I had it about right with my drawing from back in 1968: Nixon attacked the democratic headquarters, of course, in the Watergate break-in. He just used "plumbers" rather than military equipment.

What we were stuck with. . .

Stop The Madness!
There's eleven kinds of Coke
Five hundred kinds of cigarettes
This Freedom of Choice in the USA drives everybody crazy. . .
--John Doe
"See How We Are"

The shopping list M. gave me said simply "detergent."

M., of course, knew just what brand she'd buy when confronted with the choices on the grocery store aisle. I didn't. So, like John Doe, the choices were driving me bonkers.

I was making my once-every-two-years grocery shopping trip. M. usually handles that, and she has, bless her heart, since E. was a toddler (M. and E. were sick, so I took I. along with me for the two-hour adventure). I don't know if I'm just as clueless as George H.W. Bush allegedly was when he went shopping and encountered a price scanner, but I was amazed at how much MORE of everything there was--more brands, varieties, etc. And how much more expensive things have gotten.
There in front of me were the laundry detergents. Not just Wisk! and Tide! and the basic brands, but variation within the brands as well:

  • Sunshine Energy
  • Natural Elements
  • Fresh Rain
  • Joyful Expressions
  • Soothing Sensations
  • Mountain Fresh
  • Island Fresh
  • Outdoor Sunshine
  • Simple Pleasures
  • Febreze
  • Original Scent
  • Meadows & Rain
  • Pure Essentials
  • Stain-Lifter (ahhhh! that's the one I was looking for!)

The more I stared open-mouthed at the display, like some subject of the Soviet Union suddenly unleashed on their first trip shopping in the West, I realized that all this shit costs so much because manufacturers spend so much time, energy and money creating scents like "Mountain Fresh" and selling them to the consumer. I'm not advocating a return to a single box of dry detergent--love it or leave it. But, really, do we REALLY need so many laundry detergent choices?

Choices, too many choices. . .

Isn't It Ironic. . .
to sell t-shirts calling for an ebay boycott. . . .on ebay? I think we should all buy one of these, then give the seller a negative rating. . .just to fuck up their account. Whaddya say?

Friday, February 1, 2008

From Walla Walla to. . . .Narrabri?

Unlikely Lineup on the Walla Walla Valley. . .

Something strange is going on at Valley Yard of the Walla Walla Valley Railway. For next to ancient WWV HH660 770 this day are two foreign visitors--New South Wales Government Railway 47 Class locomotive #4716 and State Rail Authority 44 Class #4464.

Apart from the 4' 8 1/2" gauge--and, in the case of the 4464, a common American Locomotive Company heritage--the two Indian Red visitors from Australia have little in common with the 770. Change is in the air. . . and the changes don't bode well for the future of the Walla Walla Valley, at least as its HO scale recreation residing in our "bonus room" upstairs is concerned. After many months of mulling such a change, I've decided to "pull the pin" on the WWV and take my modeling interests in a wholly new direction. . .down under, towards Australia.

I've got quite a bit invested in the WWV--in terms of models built, and in certainly in time spent researching and building the layout. But I'd not been too inspired lately by where the layout was headed. The layout room was seeing less and less use, and seeing a big room in the house virtually ignored the past six months just underscored the notion that I was looking for a kick in the ass to get me back into the hobby.

I'd long been interested casually in railroads of Australia, but it wasn't until late summer last year when my friend Lance Lassen returned from a visit down under that I really caught the bug. Actually, we both did. Lance was in the same prediciment, but on a larger scale: he too had a large model railroad in his house, recreating Southern Pacific's Santa Paula branch in the 1960s. And he too had hit a dead-end, interest-wise, in continuing the project. So, i guess i can blame Lance--or thank him, if this new direction for my modeling does pan out--for bringing me back the gorgeous Trainorama 44 Class Alco cab unit. . . my first Aussie modeling purchase.

Lance also brought back Ron Preston's book on the 48 Class locomotive--the branchline diesel workhorse on the New South Wales system--and it interested me in the Northwestern NSW branchlines in the Narrabri area. Thanks to the magic of the internet, I was able to find trackage maps of the area, photographs of the rail yards, and get in touch with a retired railroader and modeler who worked into Narrabri in the late 1970s and early 1980s--my period of interest. Colin Hussey has provided me an amazing amount of information about how the railroad operated--from the traffic hauled to the types of cars used, to how the staff system of train control works, and even throwing in a bit of history on how the state railway suffered as a political football. Colin has been kind enough to scan several pages of freight and passenger schedules of the period as well. Other Australians on internet discussion boards have been just as friendly and helpful. Lance and I are certainly rare birds--as far as I know, we're about the only model ralroaders in the United States concentrating on Australian railroads, which means hobby shops here in the States have virtually nothing we need (other than track!) for our Australian modeling. It pretty much all needs to come from overseas, via pricey postage, purchased mostly on-line. (And while Lance and I are among the few in the US, Australia is crawling with modelers of American railroaders, and their hobby shops are filled with American models. Go figure!)

So after the brief temptation to replace the Walla Walla Valley with a model of Walla Walla, New South Wales--yes, there is another Walla Walla--and toying with just dropping four "l's" and replacing them with a similar number of "g's" to model Wagga Wagga, I decided that Narrabri it would be.

The Goal: Modeling scenes such as the Northwest Mail, behind a 48 Class Goodwin/Alco, seen north of Narrabri in the early 1980s. . .

The internet is certainly helping to bridge the distance between Texas and Narrabri; it's a huge gulf to cross--and learning about how Australian railroads operate (yes,they're QUITE different than those in the United States) is a big hurdle. But to me, a hobby is most fun if I can learn something in the process. . .and as with the WWV, there's a lot to learn going into the new Narrabri project.

My model railroading interests the past seven years have been wrapped up in the WWV, an obscure shortline operating between Walla Walla, Washington, and Milton-Freewater, Oregon, until 1985. For a while, my interest in the WWV had been a bit of an obsession, resulting in two model railroads and a website ( that chronicled not only my modeling of the railroad, but the history and stories of those who worked on the real thing. My journey on the WWV--which I never saw in real life--was aided and abetted by a score of people similarly interested in the railroad. Among 'em, Walla Walla native Marc Entze, whose interest in his hometown railroads greatly aided my research of the WWV; the late John Henderson, who graciously provided dozens of scans of his black and white studies of the WWV during the 1960s; Hiroshi Okada, who took photos of the WWV as a foreign exchange student in 1972 and through a strange tale of fate ended up providing me with a half-dozen photo albums of snapshots of the ralroad; and the late Ed Schnedmiller, the grand old man of the WWV, a life-long Walla Walla resident, and WWV's general manager from 1953-1970--whose memories of the WWV remained amazingly clear for someone in his nineties. Without them, the model WWV would never have been a viable project.

All this is to say that my involvement in preserving the history of the WWV and bringing it back to life in some small way was incredibly enriching, in no small measure due to the people I've met while doing so. I thank them for their patience and help, much as I do those who will help make a little bit of northwestern New South Wales come to life in a second-floor bonus room in Texas.

The Decisive Moment: E. figures out what's in the box. . .

One Happy Kid
As predicted yesterday, E.'s birthday gift sent his spirits soaring like a. . . well, a Saturn V rocket. He was pretty blown away by his gift from M. and I of a 1/144th scale model of the Apollo launch vehicle. He called it "the best birthday present of all time." When it was his bedtime, we put it up on his dresser across the bedroom from his bed, and shined his desk lamp on it, casting an eerie shadow on the wall behind. It looked Awesome. For dinner, the family was joined by Lance and Emily and Bruce and Roxie at Logan's Roadhouse, a favorite of the boys for the buckets of peanuts on the tables and the big windows in front of the kitchen where one can watch flames shoot up from the grille as steaks are cooked. It was a memorable evening for E. He fell right asleep. And so far, he hasn't lost a single piece of the rocket.

Dimples as deep as lunar craters: E. takes the mighty Saturn V for a test flight. . .