Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Hero of 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (Seaton, 1947) remains one of the best-loved Christmas films, and with good reason: it has a terrific cast (led by Oscar-winner Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle), a story that deftly balances seasonal uplift with modern skepticism, and a tone that never takes itself too seriously.  It's one of the few films I try to catch around this time each year.

But the film also stands out as probably the finest cinematic moment for the United States Postal Service.  As you remember, late in the film, the trial over Kris's sanity isn't going well, so Susan (Natalie Wood) decides to write him a letter, which her mother (Maureen O'Hara) mails to the county courthouse, via those vertical mail chutes you'd find in high-rise buildings from that era.

Note that the total postage is 16 cents--significant overkill since first class postage back then was only 3 cents! In fact, there wasn't a 13-cent US stamp issued in the entire 1940s and I can't find any evidence (based on the image) that this stamp we see ever existed at all.  Was it created by the production department specifically for this shot?  Very curious.  The 3-cent stamp looks like the Thomas Jefferson issue of the Presidential series (Scott #807).

We then cut to one of the New York City mail sorting centers, where a post office worker (we never learn his name) calls to his co-worker Lou to observe that of all the Santa letter's he's seen, none has been addressed like this one.  Lou has a newspaper and shows his friend the story of the court case, and this anonymous worker gets an epiphany:

“Hey Lou, how many Santy Claus letters we got down at the dead letter office?”
“I don’t know, there must be about 50,000 of ‘em—bags and bags all over the joint and there’s more comin’ in every day.”
“Yeah.  Hey, uh…Hey Lou…it’d be kinda nice to get rid of ‘em, wouldn’t it, huh?”

I've always enjoyed this sequence because of one particular detail--the incredibly casual way the workers would throw mail up in the air and over their shoulders, to have them caught in overhead circulation paths that route the various letters to their specific destinations.  It's such a great old school detail.

So, as we know, this brainchild proves to be the deciding factor in Kris's exoneration.  But before we get the familiar image of the contents of the mail bags--21 in total--being thrown on the bench of Judge Harper (Gene Lockhart)--the USPS also gets its own little public relations boost, as orated by lawyer/leading man John Payne:

“The Post Office department was created by the second Continental Congress on July 26, 1776.  The first Postmaster General was Benjamin Franklin.  The Post Office department is one of the largest business concerns in the world.  Last year under Robert Hannigan, it did a gross business of $1,112,877,174....Your honor, the figures I’ve just quoted indicate an efficiently run organization.  Furthermore, the United States postal laws and regulations make it a criminal offense to willfully misdirect mail or intentionally deliver it to the wrong party.”

And so with that combination of kismet and lawyerly quick-thinking, Kris is off the hook and Christmas is saved--all thanks to the USPS and its official recognition of Kris as the one-and-only Santa Claus!

This shot comes from the pile on the judge's desk (we soon see him clear them out of frame to make his ruling).  Note the Jefferson stamp again, as well as the (insufficient postage) 1-cent Washington stamp (Scott #804) from the same series.  I like that there are different 1946 postmarks, too--though if you look closely, one of the postmarks is from Indianapolis!.  If there's no other address besides "Santa Claus", how did a letter from Indiana end up in a dead letter office 700 miles away?  Maybe they're not quite so efficiently run after all...


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hearts and Minds

I was 8 when Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter came out 30 years ago, so too young to appreciate the cinematic division that year between the two major Vietnam movies, the other being Coming Home (Ashby). I don’t remember my family ever discussing Vietnam once when I was growing up, though given my dad’s conservative bent, I think it’s safe to assume where he stood on the conflict.

But these two films were my first exposure to the war. And while it’s easy to see what the fuss was about politically, it’s also bewildering to understand the critical love for the two. Hunter grounds itself in realism and community in the heartfelt extended wedding setpiece at the beginning, but feels compelled to lay on the barbarism and contrivance absurdly thick once the friends are reunited by the Viet Cong. Coming Home wants to make itself an updated version of The Best Years of Our Lives, but lets the love story and liberal self-loathing overwhelm any complexity with predictable and schematic character arcs. There are powerful supporting performances in both, and perhaps even some valuable lessons, but each would’ve benefited from far less of a heavy hand.

The best Vietnam film that year is also the least well-known, for Go Tell the Spartans (Post) doesn’t have an axe to grind or a soapbox to stand on, but its portrayal of conflicting loyalties and absurd demands on an Army base ring true emotionally, while staying committed to the idea that smart, capable soldiers are often the most primed to have their dedication evolve into disillusionment. It’s a terrific film.

The Vietnam Veterans memorial (itself an enormously moving monument to visit) has had two stamps issues: the landscape depiction (Scott #2109, on the front of the card) and one part of the Celebrate the Century series (Scott #3190g, on the reverse side). The Vietnam War stamp is also part of the Celebrate the Century series (Scott #3188g), while the Appalachians and Pennsylvania stamps (Scott #4062 & 3733) are part of the Wonders of America and Greetings from America series, respectively. Hunter famously won 5 Oscars (to Home’s three), including Best Sound (Scott #3772j), another installment of the American Filmmaking series.

Top 10 Films of 1978

1. The Last Waltz (Scorsese)
2. Dawn of the Dead (Romero)
3. The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Olmi)
4. Fingers (Toback)
5. Straight Time (Grosbard)
6. Go Tell the Spartans (Post)
7. Blue Collar (Schrader)
8. A Wedding (Altman)
9. Days of Heaven (Malick)
10. House Calls (Zieff)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Stranger in a Strange Land

I’ve ridden on the Ferris Wheel in Vienna featured in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.  I’ve visited the Trevi fountain in Rome that is so memorably eroticized in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.  But despite being to New York City several times, I’ve still never been to the top of the Empire State Building.

I don’t know what the lines were like to reach the landmark’s scenic heights 75 years ago, but poor Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) took the express route when King Kong (Schoedsack/Cooper, 1933) saw fit to use the world’s tallest building (at the time) as the site of his last stand.  It’s a tremendous climax to a film that may show its age around the edges, but has not dated a bit in its rich, creative vision and sense of dread and fantastic awe.

There have been, of course, remakes since then, but for some reason, the subsequent versions have meddled with what I’ve always felt was the horrific center of the story.  They’ve tried to make Kong more “human”, assigning more external emotion to his story when the point has never been, to these eyes, his unrequited “love”, but his own primal sense of mystery and, by extension, his larger alienation in a world hostile to him.

Both Jessica Lange’s vapid heroine and Naomi Watt’s spirited one attempt to draw a real connection with Kong, one that’s trusting and protective.  But in seeing it as a relationship to nurture, the subsequent versions reduce his frightening grandeur, making him less mythic and more mere monkey.  But Fay Wray can’t get free of him fast enough, and there’s never a sign of remorse or loss at his death in her eyes.  Because the world, including her, sees him simply as a monster, in all its imposing ferociousness.  There is nothing sentimental in how Schoedsack & Cooper portray his plight or his demise.

But that doesn’t mean his final fall isn’t any less poignant, because through the incredible craftsmanship of visual effects pioneer Willis O'Brien, we the audience are able to see what Carl Denham & co. can’t—that Kong is a tragic figure as well as an epic one.  Denham’s last line “It was Beauty killed the Beast” frames the story in cultural parameters he can’t resist, as huckster and showman.  But it’s also laced with contempt and pity, not reverence, for while Kong was ruler of his world, he was only of value in ours as a captive for the curious.  Kong is Denham's meal ticket, but nothing more than a dumb animal, easily conquered and reduced to a sound bite or facile metaphor.  A freakish anecdote laying dead on the NYC boulevard.

But we know differently.  And it is this insight, this privilege at a larger view of Kong and his story, which makes the film so sad, and so glorious.  Because Kong's level of expressiveness was only possible through a triumph of technology, and all the behavioral quirks that he shows, all the attention to detail that the stop-motion photography brings to remarkable life, are testament to cinema’s power to terrify, transfix, and enchant.  And in that world of the imagination, Kong does remain king.

Kong has yet to get his own US stamp, but the Empire State Building one was part of the Celebrate the Century issue for the 1930's (Scott # 3185b).  The wonderful score for Kong was written by Max Steiner (Scott # 3339), while the Special Effects stamp and Disney's Beauty and the Beast stamp are Scott #s 3772i and 4027 respectively.  The Chinese Year of the Monkey stamp was Scott # 3895l while Canada's Fay Wray stamp came out in 2005.

My Top 10 films from 1933
1. Man's Castle (Borzage)
2. Footlight Parade (Bacon)
3. King Kong (Cooper/Schoedsack)
4. Snow White (Fleischer; Betty Boop short)
5. Las Hurdes (Bunuel)
6. Gold Diggers of 1933 (LeRoy)
7. Zero de Conduite (Vigo)
8. Duck Soup (McCarey)
9. Queen Christina (Mamoulian)
10.  Dinner at Eight (Cukor)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

In the Beginning...

I've discussed a little about how I buy first-day-of-issue caches to supplement the customized postcards I create--particularly when they apply to film stamps that were issued before I began collecting.  This means that I've done my fair share of research poring through old stamp catalogs to see what kind of stamps (US and otherwise) are out there. 

The earliest stamp I ever found that specifically referred to the art of cinema was this 1944 US release, commemorating the 50th anniversary of motion pictures.  Presumably, they use the creation of the first film (Fred Ott's Sneeze) in 1894 as a benchmark, though the first public cinema, a Kinetoscope parlor in New York City, also opened that year.  Because it's such an important philatelic issue given my "topical" interest, I've picked up more caches for that issue that I would've ordinarily.

You'll notice that some of these were postmarked in LA and some in NY.  While there is now a central office that handles First Day of Issue postmarks for any newly released stamp, it still appears that back then, some post offices would take it upon themselves to have a special postmark because of the demand and popularity of these kinds of collectibles. 

All these caches were mass-produced, so none of them is unique and I've seen other examples of the exact same illustration at subsequent conventions.  The more rare examples would actually be the bottom two, since they incorporate a later issue (The Films of 1939) to supplement the original--something which I'll be doing more of with samples in my collection in the future.

Even decades later, this 1944 stamp (Scott #926) remained very unusual and cinema-themed releases were few and far-between, outside of the occasional movie star.  So because the pickings were really slim for many years, it actually seemed conceivable that I could collect every cinema-related stamp made worldwide.

Then, the market exploded with souvenir sheets (usually from third world countries) specifically targeting collectors with appetites for celebrities and movie stars, and this ambition of mine became prohibitively expensive.  So while my collecting habits were two pronged for a while, I no longer worry about any new cinema stamps that are outside the US.  There are too many and the souvenir sheets are designed to be pricey. 

But what I do have, I'll begin to post here, too, even though the cards and postmarks are my primary emphasis.

The Beau Geste and Stagecoach stamps are Scott #s 2447 & 2448 respectively.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Stamp of Disapproval

Sometimes, things don’t always go as planned when it comes to getting the postmarks back from the USPS—whether through a mistake on their end or lack of planning on mine.

For the James Dean issue back in 1996, it never occurred to me that I needed to ask for a special postmark.  I didn’t for the Marilyn issue the year before and they all came out uniform, clean, and sharp-looking.  But lo-and-behold, when I got them back, a majority of them looked like the one above: no special design and no indication that it’s even a First-Day-of-Issue.  As generic and undistinctive a postmark as you can imagine.

Curiously, a few of them were given a different postmark, as you can see below.  This design looks great.  Unfortunately, none of the ones with the stamp on the front of the postcard with the image were given this nice postmark.

So clearly, since both postmarks were applied to my shipment, it was the choice of the person in the Postmaster’s office to use the crappy stamp for most of my cards, perhaps thinking it didn’t matter.
Now, every single time I send in a collection to be stamped, I include the following message on a post-it on every single rubber-banded bundle of cards:

Please Apply Illustrated First-Day-of-Issue Postmark on EACH card.  Thank You.

Of course, with many of these James Dean cards, the damage is done, so they sit together in a box, of negligible interest or value, testament to a lesson learned.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Westpex is the annual postage stamp convention that I attend every spring—-the biggest on the West Coast and held near the San Francisco International Airport (it used to be in downtown SF back when I first started going). It’s always interesting going because my brand of covers and collecting doesn’t have much credibility among the old schoolers in attendance. In fact, even though I’m in my late 30s, I still skew in the youngest 10th percentile among the attendees. While there are efforts to outreach to youth, it still remains essentially an old person’s hobby (and, from the looks of the attendees, predominantly male as well).

It’s pretty rare to find a postcard FDC like the ones I create at these things, but sometimes I do find something else interesting that has a cinematic connection. This Marilyn Monroe cache and cover is a good example. The idea of using older stamps that have some kind of thematic relationship to the subject never really occurred to me until I ran across this item years ago. Now, the reason you see so many other, older stamps tied to the First-Day-of-Issue postmarks I collect is because I was inspired by this piece.

Monroe was, of course, the first Legends of Hollywood stamp release (Scott #2967). The numerous Monroe postcards I created for that issue is a story for another day, but nothing I did was as inventive as this Kennedy collaboration, using both JFK (Scott #1246) and Robert (Scott #1770) to sandwich the tragic starlet, though I'd like to think the card with her and Ronald Reagan (Scott #3897) has its own charm.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Parting the Red Sea

Growing up, Charlton Heston was a perpetual fixture in our household (where he was affectionately known as “Chuck”). This was largely because of the annual Easter broadcasts of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. It was the movie star my mom talked about the most, and years before I saw the film, I knew how El Cid ended because of my dad’s vivid description.

It was later that I discovered the various apocalyptic films of his later career, from the atrocious Earthquake to the priceless Soylent Green and The Omega Man, which found their own perverse redemption in his totemic campiness. Always square-jawed and overly-committed to whatever catastrophe he was facing, from ant armies in The Naked Prey to circus train derailments in The Greatest Show on Earth (a misnomer if you ever heard one), he might be great fun, but I never considered him a good actor.

But he could be. Probably the greatest surprise of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was that, among a cast of legendary British thespians, the best performance was Chuck’s as the Player King, full of authority and gravity, his commanding voice so beautifully suited for the Bard when I had become accustomed to hearing him quote sword-and-sandal scripture-lite. I’ve owned the beautiful soundtrack for Antony & Cleopatra for years but have never seen it, though one day I hope to.

Though Orson Welles' brilliant Touch of Evil remains his best film, a personal favorite is Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968), a film that could easily lose itself in the premise and prosthetics if not for Chuck, who grounds the film as Everyman, a sci-fi Adam who sells the confusion and absurdity of his predicament with the type of commitment the film needs. I won’t necessarily argue that it’s a great performance, but it’s calibrated exactly to the picture’s benefit, and be it his artist’s instincts or just the result of astute casting, that final moment on the beach is iconic for a simple reason. It works. RIP, Chuck.

Chuck may get his own stamp one day, which is why I’ve saved the front of the postcard for him. But the makeup was much celebrated at the time (it won a special Academy Award since the category didn't even exist yet) and it seemed a perfect opportunity to add as many Statue of Liberties as I could muster: Scott #2599 , 3451, and especially 1599, which itself appears to be peeking its head out from some futuristic horizon.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Apt Pupil

Today is the 50th Anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), which stands as perhaps my favorite American movie of the sound era. It’s hard to tell when it took this particular position for me, but as time has passed, Hitch’s other films, as amazing as they are, recede in importance to these eyes, while Vertigo still stays so immediate and real and palpable.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ll very happily sit down to consume North by Northwest or Strangers on a Train or Rear Window again and again. But there’s something about Vertigo that is uniquely compelling. Perhaps it’s the fact that it largely eschews his trademark gallows humor, which makes his other films undeniably entertaining, but which I suspect also acted as a defense mechanism so we don’t get too close to his sensibilities. But Vertigo cuts to the bone, and is as raw and open an exposé of Hitch’s pathologies as one can find in his body of work, without allowing levity to distract or dilute its impact.

Perhaps I love it so much because it acts as a perverse metaphor for the task of film director—a man crafts a woman to his exact specifications of performance: how to walk, dress, behave, with every small little detail meticulously, even obsessively, stage-managed. It's all about power and control and is a highly revelatory insight into Hitch’s own self-awareness of how all-consuming a director's preoccupations can be—especially for someone who embeds so many details and subtexts as carefully as he does.

But the truth is, it isn’t the story of one man manipulating a woman to his specifications—it’s the story of two. And that’s another thing I like about the film, because the “mystery” of Madeline is revealed far earlier than would be typical for most films. Some take issue with Judy’s flashback letting the cat out of the bag so early. But it’s a smart decision, because Hitch’s MacGuffin in Vertigo is the murder plot altogether. It’s completely incidental to what really matters in the film, for the story is Scottie’s obsession and how it dooms him. But unlike most of Hitch’s films, there is no resolution, no tying up of loose ends, no comeuppance for the killer. Just the figure of Scottie at the top of the church tower, devastated and alone.

I think I also have grown to love the film more since I moved to the Bay Area. For San Francisco, to me, is a city of history and romance, memory and heartbreak, and it’s hard not to drive through it without encountering some of the stops in Scottie’s journey through the film. Here's a good website that offers an overview of the assorted locations for Vertigo--both in SF and further south. And two of the most iconic images of San Francisco are featured both in the film and on the FDC I created for the issue of the Jimmy Stewart stamp—the Golden Gate bridge and the Palace of Fine Arts.

This particular postcard doesn’t have as many postmarks as some of the other Vertigo ones I have, but I chose this for the blog because I like how the two bridge spans reflect each other. Sometimes, I accumulate duplicate one-sheet postcards on a film after some older related stamp issues (like the Hitchcock or Bernard Herrmann stamps) have already been released, and while I could’ve included them on the front instead to join Stewart, I liked how these two stamps complement the setting and architecture prominent on the poster.

The Golden Gate bridge stamp was part of the Celebrate the Century series of the 1930s (Scott #3185l) and the Palace of Fine Arts was part of an American Architecture release back in 1981 (Scott #1930).

(for more thoughts and stamps on Vertigo, check out my follow-up entry).  

Monday, March 10, 2008

2007 Yearly Wrap

I thought I'd try to start each new year with an annual sampling of the stamps and first-day-of-issue postmarks I added to my collection from the year before.
James Stewart, Scott #4197

Disney: The Art of Magic issue, including Dumbo, Scott # 4194

The USPS did something unusual with the Star Wars sheet it issued.  It also set up on online poll for people to vote for their favorite of the stamps, which would then subsequently get an entire sheet to itself.  The Yoda stamp won, so the stamp at the top of the card is the reissue from the full Yoda sheet, and the stamp at the bottom of the card from the original Star Wars sheet.  Scott #s 4205 and 4143n, respectively.

Marvel Comics sheet, including Captain America and Iron Man, Scott #s 4159e and -h respectively.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Scott # 4165.  Also pictured are Audrey Hepburn (# 3786), Henry Mancini (# 3839), and a Tiffany lamp (# 3749)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Maximaphily and Me

Recently, I got a correspondence from my favorite postcard vendor and he used a term that I hadn't heard in a while but which has crossed my stamp-collecting path periodically.

Maximum Card: a postcard with an enlarged picture of a commemorative postage stamp, with the stamp itself postmarked on the picture, usually the first day of issue.

I ran into this term a couple years ago, but it’s never been clear to me how pervasive it was (not to mention its assorted variations) in the philatelic community. It's always struck me as a niche that’s often relegated to an afterthought. Doing a little digging, though, I did unearth this.

In other words…Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Essentially, According-to-Hoyle restrictions on what does and doesn’t constitute a maximum card bore me. Here’s one I created that doesn’t “qualify” by FIP standards for a variety of reasons, but which I like—plus, it also brings up some additional attributes of my collection that haven’t been discussed yet.

First of all, although all my previous blog posts have dealt with postcards with various cinematic themes, this is actually the first stamp I’ve posted about that is film-related itself. This was part of the 10-stamp American Filmmaking series issued back in 2003, with an unexpected bonus that the illustrated postmark used the Academy Award statuette in the design. Dances with Wolves (Costner, 1990), of course, did win 7 Oscars back—including Best Sound (and most famously beating out Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas for Picture and Director). Needless to say, I’ll eventually post examples of all 10 of the stamps from that series (which include Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, and others).

Another distinctive element of this card is that it actually incorporates older stamps with a more contemporary issue and postmark (this is different from the multiple-FDCs I posted about earlier). In this particular case, the additional stamps are:

Crazy Horse (1982 – Scott #1855)
Red Cloud (1987 – Scott #2175)
Sitting Bull (1989 – Scott #2183)

The Scott # refers to the Scott Publishing Company and its specialized catalog, which is the philatelist’s bible in researching and referencing every postage stamp ever issued, both in the US and every other country on earth. The international catalog is a multi-volume series that is updated annually, but I just own a copy of the US catalog exactly for situations like this: sometimes, a card presents itself that invites the use of additional, previously-released stamps that dovetail nicely with the subject matter of the card I’m using.

Needless to say, I usually don't have these stamps just lying around, so they do constitute an additional investment, but for older stamps, they're usually pretty reasonably priced (for example, it would cost me $1.90 today to buy the 3 Native American stamps I just listed). That's the main reason I attend stamp shows like Westpex (only two months away!)

Here's another component to my collection--I'll also use the back of the postcards, not just the front, to assemble additional FDCs which may not (for space or aesthetic reasons) be suitable to use on the face. You see that on the back of this card, I also used previously issued stamps with a newer FDC—in this case, one from the 40-part Wonders of America series issued in 2006. The additional stamps are:

Wildlife - Buffalo (1969 – Scott #1392)
Buffalo (2000 – Scott #3468)

I really like using older stamps (in this case, even one issued before I was born), not only because of the variety of style and colors they add on an aesthetic level, but also because I think it provides interesting connective tissue with the past. US stamps in particular represent America’s political and cultural history, and I like incorporating that sense of history into the card assemblies I create. And interestingly enough, the older the stamp, the cheaper it often is to procure. Because the '69 stamp had an original face value of 6 cents, it can increase in value over 600% and still cost less than the 2000 stamp (obviously, once you start hitting the turn-of-the-previous-century, this general rule flies out the window).

Since WonderCon was this past weekend, I thought I would include an FDC from one of the DC Comic issues, since I've already included a few of the Marvel stamps that were released a year later. I haven't collected comics in over 20 years, but these shows also feature lots of movie memoribilia for sale, so it can be a good place to find some movie postcards, if the right vendor shows up. I may even have gotten this card at a previous convention. I have to say I have never actually seen Batwoman (Cardona, 1968), but I can't imagine it can be anywhere as cool as the one-sheet makes it appear.

Lots of film wrap-up catch-ups await, so keep coming back! B^)

Friday, February 22, 2008

My Oscar Ballot

I love the ridiculous institution called Oscar but a more thorough breakdown analysis is for another site.  However, I will post my personal preferences if I had a real ballot.  Maybe one day...

PICTURE: There Will Be Blood
ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
ACTRESS: Julie Christie, Away From Her
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
ART DIRECTION: There Will Be Blood
EDITING: Into the Wild
ORIGINAL SCORE: Michael Clayton
ORIGINAL SONG: “Falling Slowly”, Once
SOUND MIXING: No Country for Old Men
SOUND EDITING: There Will Be Blood
VISUAL EFFECTS: Transformers
MAKE UP: La Vie en Rose
DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Taxi to the Dark Side
ANIMATED SHORT: Peter and the Wolf

Monday, February 11, 2008

Ask the Filmatelist - Part I

For our first installment of a (hopefully) recurring feature, Ask The Filmatelist, we go to my friend Brian, who’s the host of, IMHO, the Best Bay Area Movie Blog around:

One question from a stamp ignoramus: why did you use three stamps for the "Fargo" postcard, instead of all four, or just one?
A good question, though I should address the “ignoramus” comment first—Believe me, I may be The Filmatelist, but my hobbying is truly Amateur Hour. I attend Westpex every year (more on that in a future post), and as much as I enjoy assembling this material, it is really just dabbling compared to what the old school philatelists commit themselves to. So I can’t speak as anything other than a stamp collecting fan, as opposed to a hardline purist in the field.
The conventional wisdom suggests that you’re probably right—it certainly seems to make more sense, particularly from an investment standpoint, to include all four stamps of the holiday issue together. There are a couple different reasons why I chose not to.
From an aesthetic standpoint, I didn’t want to include the fourth stamp (a knit snowman), because not only did the color of the stamp not quite balance with the colors of the postcard and the other three stamps, but also because I thought having stamps four-across would end up looking a little cluttered. As you’ll see in future posts, sometimes the sheer volume of stamps appropriate for a postcard trumps appearance or compositional concerns, but in this case, I thought it would look better without the fourth.
Another consideration, though, was that I had another use for that snowman stamp:

This is a postcard still from the Pixar short Knick-Knack (Lasseter, 1989), about a snowman trying to escape the snowglobe in which he’s encased. It’s probably my favorite of all the Pixar shorts, with a charming a cappella score by Bobby McFerrin, and I thought the snowman stamp would work better here. Although my emphasis has always been collecting the one-sheet movie advert postcards, I also occasionally will seek out other film-related postcards if I know I’ll be able to use them with an upcoming issue.
Similarly, if there’s a multi-stamp release that has some stamps I know I want to use, then I’ll make a concerted effort to find enough different postcards so I can use all the stamps from that issue—even ones that might not seem as obvious a candidate. Since my last post introduced both the Muppet and Marvel Comic stamp releases, here are two more one-sheets that use other stamps from those same issues:

Probably the most frustrating part of this hobby is knowing the perfect movie to match with a stamp, but not having the postcard for that film. That’s why having National Lampoon’s Animal House (Landis, 1978) was a particularly happy accident, Animal being my second favorite muppet as it is (just ahead of Beaker and behind the Swedish Chef).
Spider Woman’s inclusion in the Marvel Comics issue reeked of quota pandering (Spider Woman? over Thor? Daredevil?) But there was one unlikely film that she was perfect for: Kiss of the Spider Woman (Babenco, 1985). This postcard is actually a German one-sheet for the film. I would estimate maybe 10-15% of the postcards I have for American films are movie adverts from foreign countries, quite a few purchased in my international travels, though a majority still from American postcard companies licensing the images for domestic sale.

Hope that clarified things, and thanks for the question, Brian! To Ask The Filmatelist, you can e-mail me ( or just post your question in the comments field. See you soon…

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Illustrated Postmarks and Multiple FDCs

Yesterday was Tsunami Tuesday, so I thought Wag the Dog (Levinson, 1997) would be a good selection to introduce a couple more aspects to my First Day Cover collection.

The first is that the USPS often uses illustrated postmarks for their FDCs, but they won’t always apply them unless you specifically request it. Contrast the two illustrated postmarks from these Muppet and Marvel Comic issues to the plainer one used for the holiday stamps from my last FDC post.

The other component is getting multiple FDCs on a single card. As I mentioned before, sometimes the connections between stamp and card are obvious and sometimes a little more, uh, spurious. Few people would connect Jim Henson’s creations to a David Mamet political satire, but I thought Sam the Eagle and Rowlf the Dog made a good pairing with the title, figuratively and literally. And extending that patriotic meme, Captain America seemed another obvious choice when the opportunity presented itself two years later (and though I haven’t followed his adventures since high school—Welcome Back, Cap!).

Hollywood’s always been a tough nut for Mamet to crack. Wag is fun, but runs off the rails pretty quickly, and the methods of manipulation that overlap in politics and entertainment are only cursorily explored. Speed the Plow (which I just saw at ACT this past weekend), hardly fares better. More acerbic and rooted firmly in his comfort zone (estrogen-fearing male competitiveness), it still doesn’t tell us anything about the industry that Billy Wilder and Vincente Minnelli weren’t expressing back in the 50s. State and Main is the most successful, but it’s too content in playing things cozy, soft-pedaling even its harshest barbs. It’s like a snuggly Vermont B&B weekend, just not as memorable (except perhaps for giving us the one single non-irritating Rebecca Pidgeon performance).

Next week: Our first installment of Ask the Filmatelist!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Out of Ocala

Alfre Woodard’s always been one of my favorite actresses, but the one film that earned her an Oscar nomination had always eluded me, so it was a treat exploring Cross Creek (Ritt, 1983), the lovely biopic of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. It’s interesting to remember that Out of Africa took home a boatload of Academy Awards just two years later, but the Ritt, with a similar arc, is a better film for concentrating on the writing process and not merely on the biographical trappings. In the Pollack film, Karen Blixen’s poems often seem incidental to her character’s development, serving more as a pretense to indulge in African nature-watching and a tedious Robert Redford romance. Rawling’s love life, however, is secondary to her search for her own authorial voice, and her immersion into the hardscrabble world of backwoods Bayou life serves as an interesting contrast to the post-imperialist plantation privileges Meryl Streep gets to enjoy. Ritt has always been highly sensitive to issues of class in American life without over-sentimentalizing the poor, which is always a harder sell than exotic animals and picture-postcard prettiness anyway.

The film’s still by-the-numbers in a typical Hollywood sense, and Leonard Rosenman's intrusive score distracts (especially compared to Taj Mahal’s authentic music coloring in Ritt’s Sounder from the previous decade), but Mary Steenburgen’s brittleness is used to good effect, and Rip Torn in particular is very funny and very touching (he was also nominated for an Oscar). Woodard brings in all the subtle colorings we’re used to seeing from her, but if anything, this film serves as an interesting trial run for her glorious work in John Sayles’ Passion Fish nine years later—a much better film that also exploits its own bayou locations (in Louisiana, as opposed to Florida) in marvelous ways.

Rawlings is getting a US postage stamp this month (though, alas, I don’t have any postcards for The Yearling, so it won’t impact my own collection at all).

Thursday, January 31, 2008

What's a Filmatelist?

phi·lat·e·list [fi-lat-l-ist]: one who collects stamps and other postal matter as a hobby or an investment

Since for as long as I can remember my passion has been movies, so it seemed quite natural to allow my interest in film to dovetail with my ongoing fascination with stamp collecting. For a while, this manifested itself in a broad, rather random variety of items I collected, but eventually, I found it easiest to narrow my emphasis to one specific area I enjoyed the most.

One Sheet: A 27"x41" poster, usually printed on paper stock and usually folded.
First Day Cover (FDC): An envelope with a new stamp and cancellation showing the date the stamp was issued.

Though I love movies, I've never really gotten into collecting memorabilia (though this had as much to do with the logistics and economics of maintaining such a collection as anything else). But I do have two vices: Original scores (on CD) and One Sheet film advertisements reproduced onto postcards. Whereas a single one sheet could put me back $20 or more (sometimes much, much more), a postcard would only cost me a buck. So I've managed to collect a few thousand of them over the years.

Independent of this, I started idly (even haphazardly) collecting movie stamps. Anything that related to movies or the film industry, domestic or international, was fair game. And this was fine for a while, but quickly became ungainly (more on that in a future post). So I decided to limit myself to FDCs. But while First Day Cover postmarks usually are found only on envelopes (usually with some pre-printed, mass-produced design element and called a cachet), I decided to utilize my postcard collection instead, creating a unique, and rather addictive, hybrid of the two pasttimes.

Probably the best way to illustrate this, however, is to simply show you. Here's a postcard I prepared and sent to the appropriate USPS postmaster last month, and just recently got back
  As you can see, the film is Fargo (Coen, 1996) and the stamps are 3 of the four Holiday stamps released October 25, 2007 (note the postmark). While sometimes I'll use a stamp that has a direct relationship to the movie I'm using, there are other times when I'll pick a postcard simply because of a thematic or visual relationship between the stamp and the film in question. This is a good example of the latter (though sticklers might argue that the poster is actually an example of cross-stitching, I'm not about to Knitpick the issue). The winter theme and the color schemes on both also complement each other, and it doesn't hurt that the movie itself is darkly humorous and the stamps, I think, reinforce the playfully ironic tone of the poster art itself.

Fargo is also notable because it has one of the best philatelic scenes committed to film (though we never see the actual stamp). In the final scene, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) are in bed. The film has previously referred to a painting he's been working on for submission somewhere, and that arc neatly closes here:

Norm: They announced it.
Marge: They announced it?
Norm: Yeah.
Marge: So?
Norm: Three-cent stamp.
Marge: Your mallard?
Norm: Yeah.
Marge: Oh, that's terrific.
Norm: It's just a three-cent.
Marge: It's terrific.
Norm: Hautman's blue-winged teal got the 29-cent. People don't much use the three-cent.
Marge: Oh, for Pete's…. Of course they do. Whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps.
Norm: Yeah?
Marge: When they're stuck with a bunch of the old ones.
Norm: Yeah. I guess.
Marge: That's terrific. I'm so proud of you, Norm.

It's a lovely little moment, and Marge's law enforcement officer acts as an interesting contrast to Tommy Lee Jones' sheriff in the Coens' recent film No Country for Old Men. While both are able and compassionate, serving as the moral centers of their respective stories, Marge is resiliently optimistic, even when facing the malignancy of some men's casual indifference to anything beyond self-interest. But Ed Bell is worn down by the world, by the pervasiveness of evil and the ubiquity of violence that he sees around him. His resignation (both vocational and spiritual) is a poignant one, for it's a worldview that doesn't come easily for him. But he knows enough about himself to appreciate his limits—that his capacity to confront the banality of cruelty has eroded over time, and the more he observes, the more he yearns for some kind of moral stability or reason that he can no longer find. It's an unusually bitter ending for the Coens, but to these eyes, a perfectly calibrated one.

To this end, a lot of credit goes to Roger Deakins, who perfectly captured the bleakness of both the Minnesota snowscapes and the Texas desert in the two films. He's up for a Cinematography Oscar this year, not only for the Coens' film, but also for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which would get my vote). The last film by the Coens to get an Oscar was, of course, Fargo (for their screenwriting and for McDormand as lead actress), and it appears that the brothers are likely to pick up another set this year, with another actor (supporting nominee Javier Bardem) in tow. 

So, in short, that's what this blog will be about--posting various fun, film-related FDCs that I've created myself, as well as provide some general ruminations on movies I see throughout the year. Thanks for reading, feel free to ask me any questions (about movies, stamps, or movie stamps), and talk to you soon.

The Filmatelist