The Barnes Foundation and Technology

Editor: This post was written about a year ago but was never posted. There is an update at the end of the post.

Recently, my wife and I watched “The Art of the Steal”, the excellent documentary about the disgraceful way in which the city of Philadelphia finally got its hands on the paintings of The Barnes Foundation. To be fair, it’s not really the city of Philadelphia that got its hands on the work. Rather its the moneyed elite who used its power to destroy the explicit wishes of Dr. Barnes in his will.

After watching the movie, my wife and I got tickets for The Barnes Foundation, which is still located in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. The Barnes Foundation is slated to move to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2012. We felt it was important to see the works the way that Dr. Barnes intended them to be seen, before the entire collection is hijacked forever.

While the parts of the collection that we saw did not disappoint, we only found out when we arrived that it is no longer possible to view Matisse’s “Joy of Life” as the second floor is no longer open. Disappointed does not cover our feelings. “Joy of Life” may be the best known piece in the collection, a piece that most have seen even if they don’t know its name. Not being able to see the entire collection means that sometime after Barnes on the Parkway opens we will have to make the trip to Philly to view the collection again. After watching the movie we didn’t want to spend a dime ever again in Philly but we have no choice now. (I’m lobbying for exceptions for Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks.)

So what about technology? Only that this trip would never have happened twenty years ago or it would have happened much differently. We watched the movie on Netflix, streaming on our (my) PS3. We bought tickets on the Barnes Foundation website. We used our GPS to get us from Brooklyn to Lower Merion. I tried to use my smartphone to find a restaurant for lunch before we came back but we ended up doing it the old-fashioned way, selecting from what we were driving past.

Because change comes so slowly its easy to forget how different our lives are now than twenty years ago. No World Wide Web then, no cellphones, no GPS. I wouldn’t be writing about this in a blog and you wouldn’t be able to see it. No doubt the Barnes Foundation would still be moving to the Parkway but most of us would never have heard the story behind it. There is so much information out there now that its hard to imagine that there was every anything different.

Is there a day coming in the future in which we won’t even have to leave our couches to see something like the Barnes Foundation? Will there be no point in traveling to Philadelphia to see paintings in person when we can see lifelike reproductions on our computer screens (or whatever replaces them)?

I’m sure Dr. Barnes would be livid with what has happened to his foundation. But I also think that nothing stays the way we want it to. We could never have imagined the things that we take for granted now and most of us will live long enough to take for granted things that seem impossible to us now. Without progress, I never would have seen the Barnes Foundation save for by chance on a trip to Philadelphia.

Update: The “new campus” for the Barnes Foundation will open on May 19, 2012 on the Ben Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia.

My Problem With Christmas

Like many other people, I’m guilty of romanticizing the past. I feel like things were better before cellphones, before Autotune, before the Tea Party. However, in many ways life is better now than it was in the past. I love the Internet, TV has never been better and the stupid economic models in the music and TV industries are breaking down. So I think I’m pretty level-headed with this stuff and I feel confident that I’m not looking at the past through rose-colored glasses when I say that Christmas used to be better.

To be sure, growing up in Vermont meant that Christmas was often like a postcard, with a blanket of pure white snow covering the roofs and cars and trees. Christmas was also special because it was the one time of year that my working class parents were able to buy us things that we really wanted instead of things that we really needed. In those days, my siblings and I would have to wait a whole year to get something.

Once I got a paper route, Christmas started to be less about gifts because I could now afford to waste my money year round. But Christmas was still fun as my siblings and I would laugh about the silly gifts we gave each other. We would also laugh at and with my father when he would open a large gift from Santa with his name on it. He would act surprised that Santa has been so generous to give him a VCR or a CD player.

When my siblings and I got older, we had some great Christmas’ when we’d all go back to my parents’ house with our significant others. We’d draw names at random and buy gifts for one other person. It was fun because it wasn’t about the gifts, not really, but about being all together. Sometimes we’d stay up late at my parents’ house and drink and tell stupid jokes. Sometimes we’d all go out to a bar and drink and tell stupid jokes. It was great, until one of my siblings had a child. Once children enter the picture then Christmas becomes all about them. And that’s fine. The ceremony of it all, and of course the presents, is all for children. The problem is that my siblings went from being really fun adults to being really boring adults within a few years. It was as if becoming parents made it okay to not being interested in anything but their children, or their nieces and nephews.

So Christmas had longed ceased to be about gifts and was no longer about the fellowship of my siblings and I’m not sure if it had ever been about God or his offspring. Every year when Christmas came around I began to dread it more and more. My wife and I experimented with going away for Christmas, but being in a foreign country is not a cure for being disappointed about Christmas. One year we stayed with my parents for Christmas. As my parents no longer host Christmas on Christmas Day (or even Christmas Eve or Boxing Day), there was barely any acknowledgement of Christmas. It has turned out that Christmas doesn’t mean much to me now. And given that I am conditioned for Christmas to mean something, I need to find a way to make it mean something again.

So what should Christmas mean? I’m not going to put Christ back in Christmas and I’m no longer believe in Santa Claus. I do believe in fellowship but I already have Thanksgiving for that. Christmas is typically the start of NBA broadcasts on network television but I don’t closely follow the NBA anymore. Shopping is limited and we used to always go to the movies on Christmas Day but movies (or more accurately movie audiences) often disappoint. I don’t really have a conclusion to this but I need to think about it. After all, there are only so many days until Christmas.

Kill Your Darlings

Note from yourhost: This piece contains spoilers about various television series.

Like probably anyone else that writes, I fall in love with things I write. Sometimes I re-read something and mentally pat myself on the back. (I don’t actually pat myself on the back because of my father’s constant warning from my childhood; “Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.) The only problem is that sometimes these sentences or phrases, even though they are really great, just don’t work with the rest. As noted author Stephen King advised, you have to “kill you darlings”. It is the mark of an artist that he or she knows what to include as well as what to take away.

Terrance Winter, showrunner of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, is an artist who understands this. At the end of season two of the show, Mr. Winter made the decision to kill one of his darlings. In a conversation with the TV critic Alan Sepinwall, Winter made it clear that he and the other writers all wanted to keep the character of Jimmy Darmody alive. They just couldn’t find a dramatic justification for doing so. Contrast this with another show , “Sons of Anarchy”. While I have read Kurt Sutter’s explanation of why he wants to keep Clay Morrow around at least for next season because of the the potential for conflicts between Clay and Jax, it is difficult from a dramatic standpoint to understand why Clay lived. (I’m glad this blog is too small to get the attention of Sutter. He can be thin-skinned, especially from people like myself who are not qualified to render critical opinions.) Clay is Sutter’s darling and while there will likely be intriguing story lines next season involving Clay, he should have died this season.

Earlier this year, fans of the show “Game of Thrones” (who hadn’t read the books) were shocked when the de facto lead of the show, Ned Stark, was beheaded in the ninth episode of the first season. I was similarly shocked a few years earlier when I read that scene in the books. My friend who had recommended the series told me beforehand that “Martin plays for keeps”. My friend’s meaning, as I came to understand, is that everything is in play. From having read the entire series to date, it is clear that Martin has no issue with killing his darlings. (The two showrunners for “Game of Thrones” have stated that they hope to make it to a particular event which is the best example in the series so far of killing your darlings. I also hope they make it.)

Of course this doesn’t mean that the only way to be a real artist with regards to a TV series is to kill of a major character. Walter and Jesse are still going strong on “Breaking Bad”, Don and Peggy are still at the center of “Mad Men”. It just means that if you are going to keep them around then you’d better work out a plausible reason for them to make it. I think sometimes writers get so focused on where they want to get to that they don’t take as much care as needed to figure out how to get there. Sutter wanted Tara standing behind Jax while he held the gavel, among other things as an echo of a photo of Gemma and JT. But the way the story broke this past season, it feels like that could have happened a few episodes earlier.

Contrast this with season three of “Breaking Bad” when Vince Gilligan and his writers realized that they couldn’t figure out how to keep the cousins alive for the whole season as they originally planned. Instead the cousins were (for the most part) taken care of in episode seven of thirteen. After that, the writers scrambled to figure out the rest of the season. That the rest of the season was excellent is a testament to how killing your darlings can inspire something better.

“Homeland” is another series that figured out how to resolve the major conflict of its first season in a satisfying way. Some may feel that the resolution was obvious given that the showrunners wanted to continue with Brody and Carrie. That may be so, but Brody still does strap on the vest, still does walk up to the vice president and still does flip the switch to detonate the vest. That the wiring in the vest had malfunctioned is not a cheat. We needed to see Brody go through with his plan and we needed to see Brody next season. Problem solved. (If we really want to figure out how this could happen, remember that Brody wouldn’t hug his daughter while he was wearing the vest. Later, in the limo, Brody had difficulty getting his identification out of his jacket. Maybe it happened then. Or maybe it happened later when Brody was thrown to the ground or when he was hurried into the bunker. There’s enough room there to explain the malfunction.)

The best know that they need to kill their darlings. The best example ever? How about the final episode of “The Sopranos”.

The Obligatory Comments Regarding Tim Tebow

I’ve never met Tim Tebow. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an interview with him. I watched him play at Florida but I haven’t seen him in the NFL. Based on direct observation, I know very little about Tebow. However, thanks to the media, I know quite a bit about Tebow.

I know Tebow is very religious or super religious or annoyingly religious. I know that his teams win more than they lose when he is at quarterback and I know that Tebow is pretty sure that God is helping him out. I know that part of the population wants Tebow to succeed because he is religious and that part of the population wants him to fail for the same reason. (I also know that most of the population doesn’t really care either way.) I know all these things because newspapers and magazines and websites and blogs can’t stop reporting on Tebow. Everyone has to provide their take. So here is mine.

I don’t care how religious Tebow is or is not. No doubt he is more religious than some players and may be less religious than others. Albert Pujols is apparently very religious, but I don’t remember people making jokes about divine intervention when Pujols was the best baseball player on Earth. Similarly, I don’t remember a lot of jokes about Kaka when he was the best footballer on Earth. Yet it is impossible to be on the Internet these days without seeing a Tebow joke.

So why does everyone behave as if Tebow is the most religious athlete on the planet? I wonder if it has anything to do with race and with the position that he plays. (I remember that there were Kurt Warner jokes back when he was a good player.)

What is strange to me is that so many people believe in Judeo-Christian mythology. Of course any debate about the faithful is pointless because faith means believing without evidence. (Retconning an event in order to classify it as a miracle does not qualify as evidence. Neither does reciting a story invented in order to explain something that was previously unexplainable.) Full credit to the Christians who saw the wisdom of scheduling their invented holidays near existing pagan holidays. It was also a cagey move to build cathedrals on holy pagan sites. As we know from history, once people get in the habit of going to a specific place for something, they have a hard time changing.

The truth is that Tebow’s spiritual beliefs have nothing to do with what happens on the field. God, if he exists, doesn’t reward certain faithful people on the field of play. God has no interest in granting special favors to people who believe more (or appear to believe more), at least not in this life. God is not a sports fan. Therefore, it makes no more sense to mention Tebow’s religious beliefs than it would to mention it if there was a player who credited his success to Zeus. (Actually, Apollo may make more sense. Or Hermes.)

Tebow is, of course, entitled to give credit wherever he feels it is due. However, every time I hear an athlete credit God for success, I think of the old bit by Jeff Stilson; “Yeah, we were in the game, until Jesus made me fumble. He hates our team.” It makes just as much sense. Either way, there’s no reason to talk about it.

The Best Movies of the Year

This time of the year is filled with top ten lists, simultaneously satisfying our cravings for lists and for groups of ten. (I wonder how people with more or less than ten fingers feel about this time of year.) In order to add my views, I now present my take on the best movies of the year.

The year in question is 2006. The rush to finish lists for the year that just ended is a bit silly. We need perspective to accurately judge what is best. Deciding too soon means that we end up trying to predict what we will still be thinking about in the future. So it has been a little over five years since 2006 ended. (Five is ten divided by two. See how that works.) What movies do I remember that came out in 2006?

Oh, and there are spoilers.

I remember laughing out loud during two movies from 2006. I laughed a lot during “Little Miss Sunshine”, no time harder than during the dance sequence at the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. I’m not sure I remember everything about that movie but Abigail Breslin at the pageant was brilliant. I also laughed long and hard during “Borat”. I’m not sure I’ll ever watch it again and I’m pretty sure I won’t see another movie in which Sasha Baron Cohen employs this technique, but “Borat” was great.

I’m not always a fan of Almodovar. Sometimes I wonder if its because I’m not Spanish or gay or a woman. (I’m really not in Almodovar’s demographic.) However, beginning with “All About My Mother” in 1999, I feel more connected to Almodovar’s work. Either he’s changed or I have. In 2006, Almodovar released “Volver” featuring Penelope Cruz, in what I believe was her first Almodovar film since “All About My Mother”. “Volver” is on my list of my favorite Almodovar films, along with “All About My Mother”, “Talk to Her” and “Broken Embraces”.

In 2006 there was the Mexican Invasion, with three notable movies directed by Mexicans; “Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Children of Men” and “Babel”. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is thus far Guillermo Del Toro’s peak effort as a director. (A friend tells me that the vampire trilogy that Del Toro co-authored is brilliant. I’ll wait a little bit for some vampire detox.) “Children of Men” had a compelling premise and an fine performance by Clive Owen and the Battersea Power Station. Alfonso Cuaron had gained significant notoriety¬† with his previous two movies, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”. I’m not sure that “Children of Men” is better than “Harry Potter 4”. “Babel” was a marked improvement by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu over 2003’s “21 Grams” but he still has yet to surpass “Amores Perros” from 2000. At this point, it looks like the Mexican Invasion crested in 2006.

I also remember “Little Children” surpassing my expectations, especially given director Todd Field’s previous overrated directing effort, “In the Bedroom”. Jackie Earle Haley’s solution to his problem was a heart-breaking as could be, given that he was a sex offender. Plus, Patrick Wilson will forever be the Prom King. “The Departed” failed to meet expectations, possibly because they were too high to begin with, given the director (Scorsese), the source material (a well-regarded Hong Kong movie), the subject matter (gangsters) and the lead actors (Nicholson! Di Caprio! Damon!). As it turned out, the story was good but Scorsese failed to rein in Nicholson and it derails a significant part of the movie.

“The Lives of Other” and “Casino Royale” were two other movies that I remember enjoying. I can no longer remember the exact details of “The Lives of Others”. I just went to the most trusted source on the Internet, Wikipedia, and read the plot summary. That sounds really good. I can no longer remember if the story was rendered effectively, although I really liked the movie so it probably was. As for “Casino Royale”, the promise of the latest Bond re-boot that was contained in that movie lasted exactly until Bond arrived in Bolivia in the next installment, “Quantum of Solace”. I have low expectations for “Skyfall”, which is out later this year.

Daniel Craig is an interesting case as I first remember him in “Road to Perdition” in which he played the unworthy son of Paul Newman. Then I saw him play Ted Hughes. I never would have picked him as the next Bond. But Craig was great in “Layer Cake” (the first movie directed by Matthew Vaughn; he has yet to reach that level again). Suddenly he’s buff and is the new Bond and is probably a little too fit to be a credible Mikael Blomkvist. (Although it does explain why Lisbeth Salander is interested in him.) Interesting career so far and since he’s only a year older than me, he has a long time still to go. (Not surprisingly, I’ve only seen one movie featuring one of the three leads from “The Lives of Others”, “Unknown”, which featured Sebastian Koch in a small role. Hey, I was in a hotel and it was on HBO. What was I supposed to do?)