Saturday, December 24, 2011

A View from the Bridge

A holiday standard now, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is a film that’s easy to take for granted and even easier to underestimate. The idyllic small town life of Bedford Falls, the overly-cutesy courtship of George and Mary, the knee-jerk sentimentalism about human nature are what we’d come to expect from Capra. And while there are charming moments or marvelous little grace notes, it’s undeniable that he lays it on a bit thick, especially with Clarence’s running commentary.

But Jimmy Stewart may be America’s greatest actor, and Life is a film on the cusp of his career, since it revels in his effortless folksy charm, often parodied but never less-than-believable, but it also anticipates the darker Stewart who’d flourish in the 1950’s—the Stewart with disturbing pathologies (the Hitchcock films) or with the raw nerves of obsessive behavior (the brilliant Anthony Mann westerns). For it’s in the last half hour that Life really takes wing, with a fantasy element that submerges itself into unadulterated nightmare.


Much of Pottersville might seem pretty tame to us now. And I’ve known more than my fair share of librarians who laugh at Mary’s horrible fate without George (though it’s hard to imagine Donna Reed not ever landing another beau). But to have your world turned upside down in an instant, to have every memory and place and association called into question, to have your entire reality thoroughly upended (especially those things that you'd grown to love and cherish)—I can only imagine how horrible it must be. And Stewart sells it thoroughly. It's not a film I revisit often, but when I do, I am still surprised by the darkness at its center.

There are no shortage of Christmas stamps available, so when the Stewart release came out (Scott #4197), I tried to select some that had a very traditional feel to them and which matched the color scheme of the one-sheet pictured.

Angel (1965 – Scott #1276)
Virgin Mother (1972 – Scott #1471)
Poinsettia (1985 – Scott #2166)


As for the reverse side, I figured throwing some more Christmas stamps in would be fun, since I needed to add the Barrymores (Scott #2012; Lionel plays Mr. Potter) anyway.

Sleigh (1983 - Scott #1900)
Ornament (1987 – Scott #2368)
American Holly (1997 – Scott #3177)

This is in addition to the Tiomkin stamp (Scott #3340) that I piggybacked onto the First Day Cover of the American Filmmaking series (Screenwriting – Scott #3772a) back in 2003. Total face value of all the stamps pictured: $2.66 (and 2/10).

A film like Life invites one to examine the impact you’ve had on others’ lives—inadvertent or otherwise. How your actions cause ripples in the pond, ones that reverberate beyond your own awareness. George never made a name for himself outside of his town, never conquered the world. But his decency was profound, and so was his impact. He sometimes may feel trapped in his life, but he still has choices. He never embezzles money from the Building and Loan. He never cheats on Mary. He lives on his word, his integrity, and the community responds in kind when he needs them.

George could easily appear a plaster saint, a glib archetype of the Everyman Stewart is often best remembered for. But there are far worse things in this world than to be staid and boring and decent. Sometimes, the ripples you set off aren’t ripples, but waves that capsize the boats of others—not just in an alternate life, but in a real world nightmare of your own creation. To have a legacy where you know you’ve made someone’s life worse, not better—it’s a heavy, heavy thing.

Clarence tells George “No man is a failure who has friends.” I wish that were true. But like Zuzu’s petals, I have a buckeye in my pocket—one I’ve kept there for 15 years, reminding me often of those who mattered, but more recently of those I’ve damaged. Perhaps irreparably. For it was a wonderful life. But I’m no George Bailey. And while the future remains uncertain, it will be quite a while before those waves stop crashing.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Maximum Review



It’s been a while since I discussed maximum cards, and while they don’t pop up often in my collecting, the recent X-men post reminded me that I should highlight a few that I’ve created since I last wrote about them.

I don’t typically collect art postcards, but when the abstract expressionist issue came out, I went to one of the few remaining postcard stores I know and found this painting of Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic #34 (Scot #4444g).  This is a maximum card in its most traditional sense.

I will admit to never having seen a single episode of The Honeymooners (Scott #4414t), but I found a few postcards for the show on E-Bay, including this one, which has Jackie Gleason’s face virtually identical in both stamp and card.  If you look closely, though, you can see Art Carney’s face is slightly different in the two photos.  Still, pretty darn close. 


The Black Cinema release was an exciting issue for me because it involved actual one-sheets on movie stamps, the first time the USPS had ever done that (a trend I hope they continue in the future).  But the only film I had in my collection that matched a stamp was for Scott #4340: King Vidor’s classic Hallelujah! (1929) 



The question then became one of whether I should also throw in the Irving Berlin stamp (he wrote all the songs for this seminal musical; Scott #3669) or not.  I like to be as inclusive as possible with a movie’s subjects as depicted on postage stamps, but there was also something to be said about the clean, simple marriage of identical images without lots of busy additions.  I chose the former route, and added the Jazz stamp a couple years later (Scott #4503), since its stylized artwork was a close match with the poster.  But I’m sure a lot of traditionalists would disapprove.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

We Don't Need Another Hero


Four big budget comic book movies this past summer, and while none were overtly bad, none was particularly good, either. The period playfulness of Captain America’s production values and Michael Fassbinder’s commitment to Magneto stood out, but it was mostly silly and disappointing, though not the last we’ll see of any of them I suspect (except perhaps Green Lantern - Scott #4084l).

The DC and Marvel comic postage issues yielded few opportunities for movie-related FDC’s (at least based on my collection), but I had other postcards at my disposal. The X-Men one (Scott #4159t) was the best because it’s a true Maximum Card, with the stamp and the postcard being exactly identical. As for poor Thor, he didn’t even merit his own stamp, though you can see him way in the background of Cap’s stamp (Scott #4159o). For his comic, I settled for the Spider-Woman cover stamp (Scott #4159q), since it also features Nick Fury, who will be wrangling the Avengers for next year.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Here Comes the Smudge


You already know about my first encounter with the USPS and first-day-of-issue postmarks.  But the cover I scanned in that post was one I bought onsite.  However, on that day, I also brought some classic film star postcards myself to get my own postmarks—the first time I’d ever tried this.


Note all the black ink smudges on the left side of each card.  As you can see, this was not such a great idea. 

That day, the postal employees with the cancellation stamp were in the lobby of San Francisco’s magnificent Castro theater, and as I gave them the postcards, they stamped each one individually.  However, the ink on the cancellations didn’t have a chance to dry before they handed the cards back to me in a stack, ready to move on to to the next customer.  As a result, ink from the back of one postcard (where the postage stamp was) ended up partially defacing the front of another postcard (with the image) in the stack.  If I had known better, I would’ve put the postage stamp on the front, with the image, so even though the cancellation might still get a little smudged, it would only end up marking up the back of the next postcard, which nobody would see. 

I don’t know how the Postmaster stations handle it now, with the large volumes of covers and cards they must receive for each new issue, but I’ve never had a problem with the cards smudging merely from touching each other (and believe me, on some issues, I’ve given them an enormous amount of cards to stamp).  Sometimes, I imagine some sad little postal worker at a small table in a windowless room, holding a cancellation stamp, inking it, and then pressing down on one mass-produced envelope after another.  And another.  And another.  I know my postcards are unique in this respect, since they’re created by hand, different from anything else this employee would encounter.  Do they represent a welcome change of pace to this lonely worker?  Do they enjoy my attempts at creativity in assembling the cards?  Or is it just another part of the job they look forward to putting behind them?
Yes, I actually wonder about these things.

Harold Lloyd is Scott #2825 and Rudolph Valentino # 2819.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Great Scott


It’s hard to believe that Thelma & Louise was released 20 years ago. I was in college at the time and remember all the controversy about feminist outrage and confronting misogyny (both overt and latent). I haven’t seen it again since—it’s not the type of film that gets replayed on TNT the way other “chicks with guns” films like Aliens and Terminator 2 are. But I remember that even back then, the Grand Canyon jump was a cheap and inauthentic end to two beautifully realized characters, with the final freeze frame of the car in the air a royal cop-out to an otherwise engaging movie.

What I liked about the film most, though (besides some terrific performances across the board) was that it was the only film that gave Ridley Scott visual breathing room. From Alien to Blade Runner to Black Rain, his films were suffused with imagery that was wet and dark and claustrophobic. But this film showed that he can handle sunshine and wide open spaces, that he had a directorial gift for American landscape as a complement to his heroines’ road trip. Sadly, even though subsequent efforts like Blackhawk Down and Gladiator take place largely outdoors, the style is still visually cluttered and oppressive. Thelma is a window into a career that might have been—a spare, linear, natural sensibility that allows for the fact that empty space need not be devoid of ideas.

I love to go camping and have been to the Grand Canyon, but never both together (nor have I explored farther than the south rim). Hopefully one day. The Grand Canyon stamp (Scott #4054) from the Wonders of America series gave me an opportunity to pull some older Grand Canyon stamps as well, the oldest of which is from 1934 (Scott #741) as part of a National Parks series. The other two are Scott #2512 & C135 (which designates an Air Mail stamp).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Polite Society


Although we're constantly overrun with inferior remakes these days, it's not a new phenomenon. This still has Frank Sinatra (Scott #4265) and Bing Crosby (Scott #2850) serenade each other in High Society (Walters, 1956), a musical revisitation of the superior The Philadelphia Story. While the original Cukor film is spritzy, it still has emotional weight. But High is just that: light as a feather, cute and charming but of no real consequence, with zero sexual chemistry and musical numbers, despite the involvement of such heavy-hitters, that evaporate as soon as you've heard them.

I’ve included the one sheet, which also has the stamps for Grace Kelly (Scott #2749); Cole Porter (Scott #2550),who wrote the entire score; and the Rhode Island stamp (Scott #3599) from the Greetings from America series, complete with sailboat, one of which is prominently featured in the film. Paired up with the Porter stamp is the Music stamp (Scott #3772d) from the American Filmmaking series, complete with Oscar silhouette on the postmark (Porter was nominated for his song “True Love”, which was also the name of the sailboat in the film).

You’ll also notice that the two Louis Armstrong stamps are slightly different from each other, with the lettering alternating between white and black (the difference being that one was sold individually, while the other was sold as part of a strip with other jazz legends). The Scott #’s are 2982 and 2984 respectively.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Happy Birthday, Gracie




Last fall, I visited my sister and her family for the first time since they moved to Pennsylvania, and my niece’s room was tricked out in full Disney princess regalia, so this post is for her on her 5th birthday.  

The postcard is lenticular and the Scott #’s for Ariel, Snow, Cinderella, and Belle are 3914, 3915, 4026, and 4027, respectively.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

American Beauty


Elizabeth Taylor is one of those actresses who was legendary and much-celebrated but, for my generation, is better known for the drama of her life than the liveliness of her dramas. Her death is also bittersweet because while she was, in her prime, a truly epic beauty, I am hard-pressed to think of a single film of hers I’d want to revisit. Perhaps National Velvet (Brown, 1944) comes closest. Not that her movies were bad; Father of the Bride, A Place in the Sun, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are all worth seeking out.

But none of them hold a special place in my heart. Perhaps the burden of being so gorgeous was that there was an implicit obligation to sweep her away in glamour and grandeur, with very little room for light, playful romance. So many of her films, once she reached sexual maturity, seem to take themselves far too seriously (to these eyes at least). And while she’s hotter than a Roman candle in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, very rarely do I ever want to project myself into her films, filling the shoes of a Newman or Clift or Burton. Movies are the dream factory, but her films are someone else’s fantasies, not mine.

But there is plenty of evidence that she had enormous integrity and compassion, and had to shoulder her fair amount of loss and heartache along the way (much of it far too public in nature). So she still remains a legend to me, transcending art and becoming something more, both elusive and lovely.

While she played Tennessee William’s Maggie, she also played Matt Groening’s, too. And until she gets her own stamp, this beautiful still, with the Simpsons’ youngest (Scott #4403) in the corner, will suffice.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Days of Future Past



2011 is the 10th Anniversary of an event that never happened, when the discovery of an alien monolith on the moon propelled astronaut Dave Bowman to Jupiter and beyond.

I have loved 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) for as long as I can remember.  There are movies I remember seeing earlier, as a kid, but not many.  It’s always been a part of my cultural memory (I was born two years after it was made), even though I’m not quite sure why—it’s exactly the kind of movie my parents would’ve frowned upon: opaque, irreligious, confusing, slow.

But for me, long before I ever remember stepping into a museum or being exposed to literature (and not just kid books), 2001 was my window into the world of Art.  Most of the movies I talked about were simply rundowns of things we loved, sensory highpoints and greatest hits.  But 2001 sparked debate between me and my nerdier classmates.  Was HAL evil?  What did the room where Dave ends up mean?  What was the Starchild?  Was the movie any good or not?

All films, all stories before 2001 had closure, clarity, unambiguous arcs.  Characters might’ve had complexity, but the final result was fairly clear cut.  But 2001 offered nothing conclusive, no easy answers.  This was a brave new world of observation, interpretation, nuance, and judgment.

My love for classical music started with 2001, and not just in the romantic sweep of the space ballet with Johann Strauss or the thunderous echo of anticipation from the other Strauss, Richard.  For there was nothing sadder than the heartbreaking loneliness of space through Khachaturian or more hypnotic than the atonal fusion of voices and discord as Ligeti took us into another dimension of time and distorted landscape, beyond the monolith.

The best Art changes, evolves with us, but remains both personal and universal.  That so many things about the world of 2001 didn’t come true (yet) is incidental.  For it is fixed neither in time nor location.  I get why not everyone will like it.  The best Art also refuses to placate when it would rather confront.  Some people are never satisfied unless there is an explanation, an answer.  But Art is like Life, and we make of it what we can and what we want.  

There came a tipping point with me quite early when I was OK with having 2001 (and by extension, many more subsequent books and movies and paintings) stay unresolved, even if I couldn’t fully articulate why.   All I knew was that, whatever the Starchild meant, or wanted, or was, it was a beautiful thing.  Transformative, and full of Hope.  Rebirth.  Renewal.  Promise.  An alien observer, it still spoke to the human condition and that’s what made it marvelous and momentous to me.






Years later, when I was in college, I saw 2001 for the first time on the big screen.  It became even more towering then.  The silence of space felt like the TV was on mute in my living room, but in the vastness of Berkeley’s UC Theater, it was unnerving, terrifying.  The most despondent of birthdays, the most clinical of murders, the saddest dirge of a dying computer all became bigger, epic, more visionary.  And that jump cut!  It still makes me gasp in amazement.

I am a theatrical fetishist.  I rarely rent videos and own far fewer DVDs than most people would expect.  I usually operate on the assumption that if I don’t catch a film in the theater, I’m unlikely to ever see it at all (or at least for many years until it migrates to cable).  But there are still my favorites that I return to as comfort food or as a reminder of things I love and care about, even if my cathode ray at home doesn’t do them full justice.

But not 2001.  That’s the one film I never watch at home.  It is not necessarily my favorite film, but it is bigger than life to me, so every time it pops up in a revival theater here, I do my best to go see it.  Because it is the future and the past, man and machine, history and possibility mingling together to sift and to embrace.  There are few things in this world that make me happier.

The X-wing fighter from the Star Wars issue (Scott #4143m) is paired with a spaceship from another scifi issue years earlier (Scott # 2744) and the Australia and Cuba stamps.  Pioneer and Jupiter had three stamps (Scott #s 1556, 2573, and 3189i, the last of which was part of the Celebrate the Century series).  2001 won an Oscar for Special Effects (Scott # 3772i) and the Sound stamp (# 3772j) is also part of the American Filmmaking series.  The Egg Nebula (Scott # 3887) was part of a larger astronomy issue.


My Top 10 Science Fiction films
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977)
3. Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935)
4. The City of Lost Children (Jeunet/Caro, 1995)
5. The Incredible Shrinking Man (Arnold, 1957)
6. Metropolis (Lang, 1926)
7. Forbidden Planet (Wilcox, 1956)
8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004)
9. The Terminator (Cameron, 1984)
10. The Thing (Carpenter, 1982)


Monday, February 21, 2011

My Oscar Ballot


Picture: Winter’s Bone
Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Actress: Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
Supporting Actor: John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Original Screenplay: Another Year
Adapted Screenplay: Winter’s Bone
Cinematography: True Grit
Art Direction: Inception
Editing: The Social Network
Costume Design: I Am Love
Score: The Social Network
Song: “I See the Light”, Tangled
Sound Mixing: Inception
Sound Editing: Inception
Visual Effects: Inception
Make-Up: The Way Back
Foreign Language Film: Dogtooth
Documentary Feature: Exit Through the Gift Shop
Animated Feature: Toy Story 3
Animated Short: The Lost Thing
Live Action Short: God of Love

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Inspiration


I am not a particularly creative person. My writing has always leaned toward analysis and academia-based essays, but never fiction. I have a musical sensibility, vocally and instrumentally, without the skill to match. My attempts at photography, juggling and magic are notable for their failure to go anywhere. Unless you count intentionally bad poetry (especially limericks), you might say the most creative thing I do is this blog and these postcards--which may not be saying much (whatever gifts I have lie elsewhere). But my tastes over the years have allowed me the opportunity to hang around dancers, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, all of whom have amazed me with their talent, but in an art form that I still found somewhat accessible, either from first-hand experience or long-term exposure.

But artists--painters, sculptors, mixed media--have always impressed me in a different way. Because I honestly don't know how they do it. Examining brush strokes up close in a museum never fails to leave me in awe, for every little dib and dab seems so arbitrary, random on its own. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and seeing a canvas breathe life and force and intensity in its static frame is a thing of singular beauty that I don't feel in a position to scrutinize. With the other arts, I think I can provide some sort of critical perspective, because I understand the mechanisms behind creating harmony or dissonance, light or shadow, fluidity or gravity.

Of course, all these qualities apply to painting, too, and I've seen enough art (across four continents) to know that I like some things much more than others. But while I am personally discerning, I guess I feel less qualified to be judgmental. Because every achievement that works or connects with me, I see as a small miracle. And the ones that don't are miraculous in their own way, too. That's why I've never had an issue with "modern" art--for while it can be superficially assessed as simplistic or naive or lazy, it still was inspired by something powerful and elusive, yet rendered in front of me whole and concrete and fearless. I respect that a lot, and while I've known my share of artists over the years, I've never seen them at work, so the process is still couched in mystery to me.

Which is why a movie like Pollock (Harris, 2000), or any artist biopic, can be challenging. Because inspiration is rarely a simple throughline of cause-and-effect. The epic expanse of white that is a blank canvas would be terrifying to me, that first stroke too great a level of commitment. And while Pollock's process may involve more sheer physicality than a Da Vinci or Monet, conveying that window into his artistic mind can still be a difficult thing to dramatize. Very few movies have done it successfully, leaving the artist we love (no matter how well-acted) still an enigma, chronicling the events and external demons of a life but never harnassing the soulfulness that makes that art great.

I wouldn't know what makes a painting "great" anyway. Back in college, my friend in UC Santa Cruz had a Pollock-y painting on her dorm room wall that I thought was marvelous. Learning her 6-year old niece made it didn't change that opinion one bit. I have a painting hanging now at home, from a friend. It reminds me of Van Gogh, but with a pallette that's more verdant than I'm used to him. Is it any good? All I know is that I love it.

My favorite films about art are The Mystery of Picasso (Clouzot, 1956) and The Quince Tree Sun (Erice, 1992). Neither are biographies, but simple films about trying to capture that process, and depicting how the making of a piece (be it masterful or not) is itself a journey that's singular, with the rest of the world only seeing the final destination. They are both magical films, and ones that I never hesitate to recommend to my artist friends--though I never know if they've sought them out. For process itself can be sacred and private, and while other artists perform in front of audiences, a painter or sculptor rarely does. And it feels almost intrusive to ask about how those seeds are planted.

The Phladlephia Museum of Art. The Tate Modern. The Uffizi. So many I've seen and adored visiting, and so many more I'd like to some day. In a private gallery or a public square, I never tire of being left in awe. The stamps for Pollock and De Kooning (played by Ed Harris and Val Kilmer, respectively) were part of an Abstract Expressionist issue by the USPS (Scott #4444d & b), while the other Pollock stamp (nicly mirroring the poster itself) was part of the Celebrate the Century series (Scott #3186h)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2010 Yearly Wrap

 Katharine Hepburn, Scott #  4461



Cowboys of the Silver Screen issue, including Roy Rogers, Scott # 4446


Abstract Expressionsists issue, including Mark Rothko, Scott # 4444c

Sunday Funnies issue, including Archie, Scott # 4469