Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

This is a good example of how, once I got the first year’s Disney issue FDC on a postcard, I decided to get the subsequent ones’ too, completing the set. In this case, these are all the Mickey stamps—chronologically, Scott #3865 w/Donald, followed by 3912, 4025, 4192, and 4343). The Christmas tree on the front dates back to 1973 (Scott #1508).

Toy Tinkers (Hannah, 1949) has probably been seen more than most Chip ‘n’ Dale shorts since it gets a lot of play this time of year, with Donald undertaking a military campaign against the rodents. I’ve never been a huge fan of this era of Disney shorts—colorful, polished, and utterly bland. Oscar nomination aside, this one is no exception.

Merry Christmas everyone. May your holiday season be a safe and happy one.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Smudge Dread

Unlike the last installment on bad postmarks, sometimes they aren’t anyone’s fault, but just a byproduct of the materials you’re working with.  Above are two postmarks that went very bad, for obvious reasons.

Long before I began my First-Day-of-Issue efforts, I had hundreds upon hundreds of postcards of movie posters and one-sheets.  These were typically on regular card stock.  However, once I started adding additional cards, buying them specifically in anticipation of certain stamps scheduled to come out, I started to run into this problem:

These postcards were picked up at tourist locations rather than stationary stores or postcard shops, so they have glossier finishes, making the postmark stamp unworkable.  This isn’t true of all such postcards, though, and some that appear to have a glossy finish work just fine, so it’s always a calculated risk.

Sometimes, I solve the problem by doing this:

However, this can get a bit pricey so I don’t resort to it too often—only when I think a postcard’s finish might otherwise get me into trouble. 

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Pain in Spain

I’ll be blunt. I hate My Fair Lady (Cukor, 1964). The 60’s were a critical time of transition for the movie musical, competing with Rock ‘n’ Roll, fully abandoning original premises for Broadway blockbusters, and becoming more bloated and elephantine in the process. Lady was a sensation at the time, but it all feels so fake to me, from the phony baloney London sets, to the fact that neither lead ever actually sings, to the contrivance of the “romance” between Eliza and Henry. Shaw’s Pygmalion was always quite precarious in wielding and yielding the power dynamic between the two characters (which was effectively conveyed in the 1938 film adaptation).

But the movie musical is all over-orchestrated, with big hats and boisterousness. The light touch of George Cukor (sublime with Holiday and David Copperfield from the 30’s) is leaden here. And don’t get me started on the insufferable duel between Harrison’s sing-speak and Hepburn’s Aym-a-Good-Girl-Ayam. It’s telling that the best song, “Ascot Gavotte”, features neither lead at all. It’s a simple, funny respite in an otherwise tedious and overlong enterprise.

In fact, my two favorite things about Lady has nothing to do with this film, but with two other Cary Grant pictures. In North by Northwest (1959), Roger Thornhill says he has tickets to the theater, and then later drunkenly sings "I've grown accustomed to my bourbon", so I've always preferred to imagine he was going to see the Lerner & Loewe musical, which was in its Broadway run at the time. And then in Charade (1963, the year before Lady came out), he ushers future-Eliza Audrey Hepburn off the elevator by saying "On the Street Where You Live".

I love this postcard because the one-sheet itself so closely resembles the My Fair Lady stamp (part of a Broadway musical series, Scott #2770). Add to that the Audrey Hepburn first-day-of-issue postmark and it’s a nice little gem in my collection.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Postage Overdue

This is the first in a series, exploring cinematic subjects who have not yet received a stamp but seem overdue.

Lillian Gish was as big a female silent film star as existed, and while the Stars of the Silent Screen issue found space for the likes of the completely worthy Clara Bow and Zasu Pitts, Gish was MIA. It’s often hard to account for these absences other than that the estates of the deceased are very protective of their images and haven’t yet given the USPS permission to use them for a postal issue.

I haven’t seen The Whales of August (Anderson, 1987), but it was Gish’s last film and on my (incredibly long) To See list. But I have seen Maine. The best road vacation I probably ever had was my wife and I driving from Boston, through Vermont, across New Hampshire, B&B’ing all the way. This was years ago, in October when the foliage was in full bloom. It was a gorgeous drive and I remember driving along, never turning on the radio, just absorbing the sheer beauty around every turn. Because of the tree cover, you couldn’t even see any signs of civilization on the highway so it was just trees and mountains and vistas. Amazing.

But perhaps the best part was when we drive across Maine and hit the coast. We fell in love with it instantly, the entire stretch north of Portland (before you hit all the old money estates), and swore that if we ever got tired of the Bay Area and chose to retire in a small cabin with some cats, that we would do so in Maine. One of my favorite documentaries of all time is Frederick Wiseman’s four-hour Belfast, Maine (1999) which is epic in length but thrives on the intimacy of examining daily life in this small town, in all its variety of cultural, industrial, and personal settings. It’s an absolutely exquisite film.

When Gish finally does get her stamp, she’ll join Bette on the front here. In the meantime, The Blue Whale (Scott #4069) from the Wonders of America series was an excuse to also include the 1970 Maine statehood stamp (Scott #1391), while a separate Maine stamp (Scott #3579) from the Greetings from America series also features a lighthouse (they’re everywhere in Maine and great fun to visit).

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Big Black Book

Happy Birthday to Paul Verhoeven, who turns 71 today.  Though most famous for his wry, self-aware science fiction films (RoboCop, Starship Troopers) or his overwrought “erotic” dramas (Basic Instinct, Showgirls), his most recent, the WWII thriller Black Book (2006) made in his homeland the Netherlands, is my favorite of his—and not just because stamps play a prominent part.
The film follows Rachel Steinn, a Jew who is trying to survive the Nazi occupation of Holland in 1944.  Along the way, she faces tragedy, danger, and a series of harrowing, unexpected, but quite plausible turns of events.  It is a movie with a great sense of history, without fetishizing the period trappings.  It has some terrific plot twists and character reversals without ever feeling gratuitous.  And it is very astute in showing the gray areas of morality when people are forced into unthinkable situations.  To say any more would be to give too much away, and I’ll try to discuss the stamps while still remaining as spoiler-free as possible.
Early on, she is recruited by the Dutch Resistance to get close to a Nazi officer named Muntze, so she contrives an encounter on a train on which he’ll be riding.  He’s enjoying a book when she decides to break the ice.
“Very exciting.  At least to me.” (He shows her the book, a stamp collection album)

”Stamps.  I was crazy about them as a kid.  All those faraway countries. ”
“I started collecting them when I was six.  Maybe that’s why I studied geography.”
“May I have a look?  I promise to be careful.  Polski…France…”

“I collect the stamps of the countries I’m stationed in.  First Poland, then France, and now here.”
“It stops in the middle of our queen.”
“The Wilhelmina stamps from the Dutch East Indies.  I’m not sure I’ll ever get my hands on those.”
From our first introduction to Muntze, we get a sense of his character through the stamps.  He’s clearly not a casual collector, carrying his album around with him.  Philately was a far more common hobby back then, to be sure, but it still evokes a certain type of fussy elitism.  This is only compounded by the fact that he’s so blasé about how he associates his military conquests with opportunities to expand his collection.  Countries, resources, assets are all just commodities to be collected and displayed, like his stamps.  It’s a cold-blooded way to view his job and his pastime.
Later, she notices that a friend of hers has those stamps on an envelope in his safe, so she procures them in hopes of using them as a ploy to approach Muntze at Nazi headquarters.
“My relatives in the Dutch East Indies used to write to us a lot.  My mother kept the letters, so I took all these off for you.  With steam.”

“Unbelievable.  Beautiful.  Very beautiful.”
We then see that as his secretary opens the window, he protects the stamps from a slight draft (“We mustn’t damage the stamps”).  Again, a fastidiousness that borders on being a little precious, if not perverse.
“What will you do with the stamps?”
“Nothing, really.  They were tucked away in a drawer.”
“It’s all the Wilhelmina stamps I don’t have.”

“If you see anything you like, you can take it.”
“Thank you.  I appreciate that.”
And so now she has her access, insinuating herself into his life and eventually his employ.  A “cover” is a stamp-collecting term, and she has her own cover now, too. 
--> While engaging in espionage as a secretary in the same building, she also continues an ongoing flirtation campaign with him that culminates in the following foreplay exchange after an office party:
“I’d love to see your stamp collection.”
“But it’s enormous.”
“I’m not in any rush.”
Needless to say, this is any philatelist’s wildest dream come true (especially since, as any stamp convention will substantiate, stamp collectors are overwhelmingly male).  But, as we learn over and over in this film, not everything is as it seems, since Muntze reveals he knows her secret in what can only be described as some incredibly awkward pillow talk (at gunpoint):

“Do you think I’m stupid?  Suddenly, I meet this beautiful woman.  A few days later she shows up with the stamps I’ve been looking for.  Then that same woman turns out to be Jewish.   Right after she starts working for us, Franken’s top agent gets shot.  A lot of coincidence, don’t you think?”
So alas, any notion that a postage stamp hobby might be your “in” with the ladies is confirmed as the height of outlandishness that should leave any collector incredulous.  I won’t give away how things develop from there in the film, but it’s a remarkable roller coaster ride filled with further betrayal and bravery.  By all means, check it out.
As for the Wilhelmina stamps?  Well, upon closer inspection, we learn that the stamps she brings are not the stamps he needs.  Here’s the blank page from his book—the 1923 Jubileum stamps from the Dutch Indies:
And here’s what they look like (pulled from the internet):
But the stamps she brings and the stamp he examines don’t look anything like them.  In fact, we see that he does have a Wilhelmina page that’s already complete, and most of the stamps she brings appear to be part of that series:
However, we do get a quick glimpse of the envelope she used to obtain the stamps and a few of these Dutch Indies stamps are seen there, so maybe they’re at the bottom of the tin she brings to him, under the superfluous ones.
It should be noted that all these stamps were discontinued once the Nazis took over, replaced by Third Reich stamps, so it’s not surprising that Muntze would have a hard time finding some of them, because they would’ve been completely out of circulation by the time he arrives in Holland.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Meeting in the Middle

This is the 30th Anniversary of the American release of Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Ambitious and full of memorable setpieces, it has remarkable dramatic and cinematic flourishes, but I still prefer the leaner, meaner The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, perhaps largely because Claudia Cardinale and Charles Bronson don't really have the chops to breathe life into largely totemic parts; Leone always seems more comfortable exploring "Good" on a morally relative continuum, and while West succeeds in some of its broader brushstrokes, Jill & Harmonica are still plaster saints, making them dull compared to Frank & Cheyenne (Henry Fonda & Jason Robards, respectively). While the Dollars trilogy is driven by character complexity and shifting group dynamics, West feels overly reliant on the symbolic weight Leone invests in his heroes, forcing them to do the heavy lifting while the the villains succeed in evoking a greater range of emotions. The film's helped immeasurably by composer Ennio Morricone (who finally won a long overdue Honorary Oscar two years ago), who adds just the right amount of operatic sweep when the film needs it, bringing a sense of electricity and balance to what might otherwise seem ponderous or lop-sided. Overall, it's fun, reverent (perhaps to a fault), and the artistic highpoint of Leone's career.

The FDC here is Fonda's from 2005 (Scott #3911). Along with it is the 1944 stamp commemorating the transcontinental railroad (Scott #922), currently the oldest stamp I've included on the blog and a key plot point for the film (in fact, the film was released in the US almost 100 years to the day of the driving of the Golden Spike, completing the connection of the two ends of the line). This is also the last illustrated postmark for the Legends of Hollywood that doesn't involve the star's autograph (a three-year trend thus far which I suspect may be a permanent one). And given the largely international flavor of the rest of the cast and crew, it seems unlikely that I'll ever have any additional USPS stamps to add to this card later.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Louder Than Words

I first worked for the San Francisco International Film Festival back in 1998, and have been a faithful attendee for long before that (enough for my wife to know, even before we were married, that she’d be a Festival widow for a good week every year). The Festival always comes within a few days of Westpex, so late-April always represents the annual sweet spot for the Filmatelist.

My very first FDC was for these Silent Film Star stamps (Scott #2819-28). I bought my own postcards of Chaplin, Lloyd, and Valentino and had them postmarked right in the lobby of the legendary Castro Theater, a beautiful art deco palace in San Francisco. But since those didn’t turn out so hot (a blog post for another day), I picked up one of these caches as well. There was also a special screening of Safety Last that day, the first time I’d ever seen that film.

People often ask if I ever want to go to Cannes or Sundance one day. And I tell them if I could only visit one film festival in the world, it would be the Pordenone Silent Film Festival near Venice, Italy. For while I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to preferring to see any movie in a theater over TV or video, silent movies in particular benefit from the live music, the energy of the crowd, and the beautiful evocation of a time long past, preserved in those indelible flickers on the screen.

Although there are still plenty of silents I haven't seen, I try to seek out as many as I can on that big screen, and the Bay Area is certainly an embarrassment of riches in that department. For those who've never experienced a silent film in a theater before, they are often surprised by how raw, funny, sophisticated, and emotionally complex films from that time could be. The technology may be dated, but the sensibility and artistic vision on display rarely is. And while most of the stars in this USPS issue don't appear in my personal Top 10 (below), that's just a tribute to how many wonderful silent films are with us (despite so many still having been lost over the decades)--and all well worth discovering.

My Top 10 Silent Films
1. The General (Keaton/Bruckman, 1926; w/Buster Keaton)
2. Sunrise (Murnau, 1927)
3. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, 1929; w/Louise Brooks)
4. Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929)
5. Greed (von Stroheim, 1924; w/Zasu Pitts)
6. The Italian Straw Hat (Clair, 1928)
7. The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1925; w/Harold Lloyd)
8. The Wind (Sjostrom, 1928; w/Lillian Gish)
9. Metropolis (Lang, 1927)
10. The Lighthouse Keepers (Gremillon, 1929)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Vertigo Redux

I just received back from the USPS one of my Vertigo postcards with a new FDC, so I thought I’d post it because it’s unique for a couple of reasons. I’ve already discussed my great love for the film, and while the one-sheet is the same as the previous post, the cancellations and stamp combinations are different.

First of all, this postcard has six different First-Day-of-Issue postmarks on a single card, as many as exist in my collection (in chronological order):

Alfred Hitchcock (Legends of Hollywood series; Scott #3226)
Bernard Herrmann (Film Composers issue; Scott #3341)
Film Directing (American Filmmaking issue; Scott #3772b)
The Coast Redwoods (Wonders of America issue; Scott #4063)
Jimmy Stewart (Legends of Hollywood series; Scott #4197)
And now, the Redwood Forest priority mail stamp (Scott #4378)

You can see by the dates that this spans 12 years from the first postmark to this most recent one.

This card also has the most stamps of any non-Disney postcard I have, for in addition to those listed, I also used four other stamps. The Golden Gate Bridge and Palace of Fine Arts stamps were featured in the previous Vertigo blog post, to which I’ve added the two oldest stamps on the postcard: Forest Conservation (1959; Scott #1122) and the bicentennial of the California settlement (1969; Scott #1373)

I used so many of the redwood tree stamps because of the visit Scottie and “Madeline” make to the redwood groves in the film. As big a movie buff as I am, I never quote movies in my everyday life, but if I’m ever in a museum or national park and encounter a large tree cross-section, I will always say, “Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you. You took no notice”. It’s a haunting moment in a haunting film.

As for the California stamp, nothing could be more perfect for the film than its depiction of a mission belltower, which, sadly, doesn’t really exist if you visit San Juan Bautista in real life. The mission is there but the tower in the film is a matte painting.

The dollar value of all the stamps is also by far the most of any in my collection, because this most recent postmark was for a priority mail stamp, putting the total face value of the card at $7.37.

I think this card is also ready for retirement. There’s very little real estate left to fit any other stamps, and I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone else associated with the production who will be recognized by the Postal Service. The film features Kim Novak’s best performance (Stewart’s too, incidentally), but I don’t see her ever getting a stamp. The brilliant Herrmann thankfully has already been acknowledged, and while Saul Bass (title credits), Robert Burks (cinematography) and George Tomasini (editing) also make invaluable contributions to this masterpiece, it seems likely that this will be about it--unless the film itself gets its own stamp one day. Who knows?

But I’m really happy how this one turned out—a real prize in my collection commemorating an even more special movie.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Oscar Ballot

Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Actress: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Original Screenplay: In Bruges
Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire
Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Costume Design: Milk
Score: WALL-E
Song: “Jai Ho”, Slumdog Millionaire
Sound Mixing: WALL-E
Sound Editing: WALL-E
Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Make-Up: Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Foreign Language Film: Waltz with Bashir
Documentary Feature: Man on Wire
Animated Feature: WALL-E

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

2008 Yearly Wrap

Bette Davis, Scott # 4350

Black Cinema series, including The Sport of the Gods, Scott #4337

Disney: The Art of Imagination issue, including 101 Dalmatians, Scott # 4342

Frank Sinatra, Scott # 4265

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yes We Can

When Do the Right Thing came out 20 years ago this year, did Spike Lee have any idea that a day like this would happen as soon as it has? I doubt it.

In Lee's masterpiece, it's not the heat but the humanity that ignites a racial firestorm in a colorful Bed-Stuy community one summer's day. The fashions may have changed, but the film is still as volcanic and mesmerizing as ever, from the opening credits of "Fight the Power" to that final image of the photo of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, pinned to the wall of the burned-out Sal's pizzeria. And even though he may be more of an icon than a firebrand these days, I've enjoyed Lee's films since that Oscar-nominated effort--nowhere near as incendiary, but just as ballsy, opinionated, and unapologetic in its political and stylistic perspective.

The lyrics of the opening Public Enemy song includes the lines:

'Cause I'm black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps 

Certainly the USPS has done a great deal to tackle diversity in its stamp issues, but plenty of people of color hadn't made the cut when the film was released.  That line is also a testament to how people perceive postage stamps as historical markers--a symbol of what our country self-identifies as important to commemorate and celebrate.

Given that photo that Smiley tries to sell in the film, positioning the stamps of King and Malcolm side-by-side was too irresistible for the postmark, though back in 1999, I was still cagey about using the front of the one-sheet postcards for the FDCs, which is why I used the back. The King stamp (Scott #3188a) was part of the Celebrate the Century series, and Malcolm X (Scott #3273) was issued the same year.

When the Vintage Black Cinema series came out in 2008, I used that opportunity to put some additional stamps up front--the original USPS MLK Jr. stamp (Scott #1771) from 1978, as well as one of him released by the People's Republic of Benin the same year. I've never seen The Sport of the Gods (Vernot, 1921) but it was the stamp that best matched the others so that's the one I used.

I don't think anybody believes the next four years will be easy. But it'll be nice to have a POTUS who will indeed (one hopes) Do the Right Thing.