A House Made of Sky

A high plains sunset in Sioux Falls, SD photo by author

A high plains sunset in Sioux Falls, SD photo by author

A Montana One-of-a-Kind Passes Away

Since noted Montana writer, Ivan Doig, passed away this pass week, I deciced to honor the famed author of This House of Sky with some comments and a series of sunset photographs from the West. Though Ivan spent most of his adult life in the Seattle area, he did grow-up in the shadow of the Montana Rockies and wrote extensively from that experience. One of his best known books was This House of Sky. It was a memoir of his Montana youth that became a finalist for the National Book Award.

Sunset with tree silouhettes in Taos, NM

Sunset with tree silouhettes in Taos, NM

Western Childhood

Ivan Doig was born in 1939 in White Sulfur Springs, not too far from the Big Belt Mountains and the state capitol at Helena. He grew up in a family of homesteaders and ranch hands. His mother died at age six, so after that tragic event, Ivan was raised by his father and grandmother. Soon thereafter they moved north to a different part of the state, where the family’s main occupation was sheepherding. Doig stayed in Montana until educational pursuits drew him away from the state, first to Northwestern University in Illinois and finally to the University of Washington, where he obtained an advanced degree in American history. Ivan would remain in Washington for the rest of his life.

Clouds above Billings, Montana, photo by author

Clouds above Billings, Montana, photo by author

Last Bus To Wisdom

Even though Ivan Doig just passed away, there still is one more book on the way. The novel is called Last Bus To Wisdom and it will not be officially released until August of this year. The publisher is Riverhead Books and this autobiographical story revolves around an eleven-year old boy from Montana, who is sent to the Midwest to stay with some friends of his caretaker, a middle-aged woman, who needs to undergo an emergency medical operation.

The visit to Minnesota does not go well and soon the boy from Montana is back on the bus home with a surprise companion. This posthumous traveler’s tale falls in line with a lot of the western tales that Ivan wrote during his lifetime and should consolidate his well-deserved reputation as one of the best Western storytellers of the 20th century. The book is definitely on my reading list for this year.

 

Sign for Empire Steel Manufactoring Co. in Billings, MT, photo by author

Sign for Empire Steel Manufactoring Co. in Billings, MT, photo by author

The Storyteller’s Art (according to Jack London)

Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell......In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum

Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell……In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum

To Build a Fire

In case you don’t know who Jack London was, just go backtrack a few years to your American Lit class in any basic English course. Chances are you will come across a story about the Alaskan frontier titled, To Build a Fire. That story was written by Jack London, based on his adventures and prospecting up on the Klondike trail way back at the end of the 19th century.

To Build a Fire was first published in 1902, then released in 1908 with a slightly different plot

To Build a Fire was first published in 1902.

More London

But there was a lot more to Jack than that one short story, for the man from the West Coast was a well-rounded traveler, hobo and adventurer. Unfortunately, he was also a very accomplished drinker, for like too many great writers, alcohol consumption killed him at age 40. Still, in his short time on the planet, the author from Oakland, California left numerous novels and short story collections for readers to consume, long after he passed away in 1916. Some of Jack’s best know novels include Call of the Wild, White Fang and The Sea Wolf.

The Road

One of my my favorite Jack London books is his hobo memoir, called The Road. Here, he recollects his rough and tumble days of the early 1890s before he went north on the Klondike Trail in search of wealth and gold. In The Road, Jack recounts the hard times brought on by the financial crisis of 1893 and how he survived the difficult times by riding trains, begging for a meal and trying to stay clear of the police, who were always throwing bums in jail. (Jack actually landed himself in jail and fortunately he recounts his jail time in The Road.)

The Storyteller’s Art

From The Road comes this little gem of a quote. “I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tall tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short story.” In order words Jack often had to lie his butt off in order to keep from starving to death. Times must have been quite difficult in those days, before it became commonplace for charitable groups to provide food and shelter for those without a place to live or food to eat.

More Words of Wisdom

Incidentally, Mark Twain, who had his own share of mis-adventures and times on the street, said the same basic thing quite succinctly. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” So does this mean that to be a successful story-writer, you need to drop out of school and devoid yourself of all worldly goods. Of course not, though the life of asceticism could give you some memorable life experiences to write about. Then again you don’t want to end up like Christopher McCandless, where you end up as the subject of a book (Into The Wild) rather than an author. But even in these early decades of the 21st century, there is a lot to say for taking risks both in lifestyles and written content.

Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia

Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia

Feminism In Films

The movie, Carrie, which has been done three separate times, made the list of 250 Feminist films.

The movie, Carrie, which has been done three separate times, made the list of 250 Feminist films.

March Is Woman’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month and since it is just about over, I would like to take a look one last look at the presence of women (or lack thereof) in the film industry. Inspired by an article and list of 250  feminist films over at Blacklist.com, I thought that this might be a good time to look at how women fare in this huge business. Since the original release of the list of feminist films, the good folks at Blacklist have reconsidered their original compilation and now added another 150 films to the 250 bringing the grand total to 410. This was done largely in response to the large number of blog followers, who complained about certain films being left off the list. And then a second revision was done to bring the grand total to 500.

When I first viewed the first 250, I noticed a few glaring omissions. Most of these were added in either the 2nd or 3rd round, but I still could not find one of my favorite films, The Swimming Pool, on the list does anybody agree with that?

 

Does Anybody Remember Lina Wertmuller?

Lina Wertmuller is an Italian director and filmmaker, who gained a lot of popularity with moviegoers in the 70s and 80s with such efforts as Swept Away and Seven Beauties. Her films usually included strong female leads, but she was often accused of always portrayed her characters, as  a comical men-as-dogs/women-as-whores perspective. With this in mind it is no great surprise that none of her major films made the original list at Blacklist. However, at least two of her films, Seven Beauties and Swept Away, were added later, though I still harbor the opinion that they could have been left out.

 the high-spirited Scarlet O'Hara where's a very different sort  of red dress in Gone With the Wind

the high-spirited Scarlet O’Hara where’s a very different sort of red dress in Gone With the Wind

Paint Me A Green River

 

Every year the Chicago River in Chicago, IL gets a bright green hue  thanks to a large amount of green dye that is added to the  Great Lake tributary.

Every year the Chicago River in Chicago, IL gets a bright green hue thanks to a large amount of green dye that is added to the Great Lake tributary.

St. Patrick’s Day

Today, is the 17th of March, better known as St. Patrick’s Day. Here in Montana I got the day off, though not because my employers love the popular saint from the Emerald Isle. I got the day off because it snowed. It was only an inch, but that was enough to keep my crew that worked at the local landfill from fulfilling our duties on this beloved holiday. So it’s off to a local pub for some green beer and a chance to get lucky on a keno machine. Hope everyone out there has a good time also.

Clip art celebrating St. Patty's Day

Clip art celebrating St. Patty’s Day

A Few Images To Get Your Prurient Interest Going

No joyous holiday would be complete without a few provocative images of  people out celebrating and having a good time. Here are few that I found on the web. Enjoy the holiday.

March 17 in Dublin is a fun time for all

March 17 in Dublin is a fun time for all

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

 

Why Do Fairy Tales Have So Many Strong Female Leads?

Image of Cinderella from the upcoming movie

Image of Cinderella from the upcoming movie

Woman’s History Month

The month of March is Woman’s History Month. Usually, this is an event that I completely ignore, but this year due to a series of interesting blog posts around the web, I have become intrigued with the subject of not only women in filmmaking, but also the study of stories with strong female leads. As a result my blogs for the rest of this month will revolve around this emerging topic.

The Situation Today

There is a fascinating blog post over at blcklst.com (Blacklist), where the author, Terry Huang, does a comparison of movies made with female leads to those made with male leads. What is most revealing about this undertaking is that Terry does this at different budget levels and the result is not really very surprising. As the budget for a film increases so does the likelihood that the film will revolve around a central male protagonist. What is surprising here, is how this comparison falls into an almost predictable mathematical curve. For example, at the one million dollar budget level, male films outscore female films by a two-to-one ratio. However, by time one reaches the 200 million dollar budget, this ratio has increased to a 10 to 1 margin.

Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time, there were many stories with strong female leads. In that bygone era, the art of storytelling was dominated by the likes of Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Gretel. And as in the case of Gretel, not all these characters liked to play nice. Take Gretel for example, who outsmarts the wicked witch that has imprisoned her and her brother and gains freedom for both herself and her less inventive brother, Hansel.

Nowadays, it seems that most of our big budget movies are not made unless there is a storyline that revolves around a strong, male protagonist. Incidentally, some recent movies have returned to the days of the Grimm Brothers to come up with a cinema feature with a strong female lead. If not for the recent releases of Snow White and the Huntsman, Frozen, Hansel and Gretel (Witchhunters) and soon-to-be-seen Cinderella, this picture would be a bit darker.

Still, 50 Shades of Gray leads the 2015 releases with the most sales. With over nine months left in the calendar year, it remains to be seen, if this will still be the case.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf as pictured in an ad by HADD (Hispanics Against Drunk Driving)

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf as pictured in an ad by HADD (Hispanics Against Drunk Driving)

 

Why We Read (and write) Horror

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”  by Stephen King

The Joker from the Dark Knight

The Joker from the Dark Knight

Those Terrifying Flying Monkeys

I have a confession to make…….I could not watch The Wizard of Oz all the way through until I was 14 years old. It was always the flying monkeys that would send me running away from the TV set and into another room, where I would bide my time reading a book or some such activity until the movie ended. Even my younger brothers were able to sit through the whole movie before I was able to. Why I was so terrified of these fictional animals I do not know, I just know that there was something very primal in them that frightened the Dickens out of me.

In fact, we all seem to have a few basic fears that storytellers from past ages to the present have tried to exploit. And as Stephen King expressed in the opening quote, their motive may not always be financial, for there is also the innate need to develop an effective way to prepare ourselves for any misfortune or disaster, which are bound to come our way from time to time.

Living In the City Where Stephen King Was Born

For over ten years I lived in the city where Stephen King was born, Portland, Maine. And to be honest, the place is a beautiful city on a series of hills that overlooks a saltwater bay. The port has picturesque lighthouses, ocean-going freighters and popular seafood restaurants that specialize in boiled lobsters. Not by any stretch of the imagination can Portland be considered a dark-spirited place. So where did King get his stories. They must have been internalized.

King’s Memoir Almost Comes Home To Haunt Him

Stephen King’s book On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, started out just like any other book on writing. Put rear end in chair and type. But then a demon showed up, a middle-aged man in a SUV. Accident or not, he ran Mr. King over and near killed the famed author. As a result, On Writing differs from other treatises on the same subject, because the details of Mr. King’s horrendous accident and miraculous recovery become part of the story. Even Mr. King could not escape his own stories.

Quotes On Horror

“There are moments when even to the sober eye of reason, the world of our sad humanity may assume the semblance of hell.”  by Edgar Allan Poe

“[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.” by Clive Barker

“Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.”  by Chuck Palahniuk

“It’s a dance. And sometimes they turn the lights off in this ballroom. But we’ll dance anyway, you and I. Especially in the Dark. May I have the pleasure?”  by Stephen King

“Demons are like obedient dogs; they come when they are called.”  by Remy de Gourmont

“I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times.” Robert Bloch, Psycho

“The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”  by  Frederic Brown

“There are horrors beyond life’s edge that we do not suspect, and once in a while man’s evil prying calls them within our range.”  H.P. Lovecraft,  The Thing On the Doorstep

“It’s not the books of Stephen King that I read,

I need protection from the things in my head….”  by Jimmy Buffett

“Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.”  by Truman Capote from In Cold Blood

A scene from The Wizard of Oz, where a winged monkey takes an order from one of the witches

A scene from The Wizard of Oz, where a winged monkey takes an order from one of the witches

The Day After the Oscars

A Collage of Gowns from 2015

A Collage of Gowns from 2015

The Morning After

I woke up this morning and was surprised to learn that last night was Oscar night. I don’t think I missed very much and it came as no surprise that this years awards had the least number viewers in six years. The 2015 awards have also been criticized as the “whitest” group of nominees since 1998. Also by the looks of things, the array of colorful gowns were probably the most conservative in quite a while. A sign of the changing times……..or perhaps just coincidence. My thoughts are that one year does not make a trend. Over the past decade black actors and actresses have been fairly well represented at the podium, while their Hispanic and Asian counterparts have been much less conspicuous. And Native American participants have been almost non-existent. It’s too soon to tell if this is a trend, but if this continues over the next few years, the people who put on the show may have to do some re-thinking.

Highlights

Just from looking around the web on the morning after, the highlights can be described in one short sentence. Birdman won best picture and screenwriter, Graham Moore, gave an impassioned speech about his main subject, Alan Turing and the screenplay he wrote for the Imitation Game. Other than that the Oscars may have been more routine than usual.

Is There More Competition Out There

Naturally, the question arose in my mind about whether the increased presence of Indie films and online venues such as Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu is taking its toll on our much-cherished national institution. Just from what I’ve seen of Amazon Prime, I would say that there may be something to this argument. Especially, Amazon, which seems to be gearing up in a big way to possibly challenge the dominance of Hollywood……or at the very least providing a viable alternative in the way we are entertained.

Two Questionable Films

Fifty Shades of Grey is tearing up box office sales at the theater almost in the same that the story did, when it was first released in book form. However, at the Oscars, the film was kind of snubbed (though Dakota Johnson did get to present an award). Besides being snubbed the film has been attacked as being misogynistic and misguided. There have even been boycott efforts, but these appear to have little effect, as the film is still the number one grossing film in its second week at the box office. However, 50 Shades did receive support from one star, Julie Andrews, who said she didn’t mind a red room of pain. (really)

And the other source of controversy is the recently released action/thriller called The Kingsman, in which there is a scene, where the head of a black president explodes. Critics here point out that the resemblance to our current Commander-in-Chief is way too close even if it is, just a movie.

It seems to be that a close look at these two questionable films may be symptomatic as to why Hollywood may have a problem with the content and overall caliber of its product. Only time will tell.

 

M104: The Sombrero Galaxy  Image Data: NASA, ESO , NAOJ, Giovanni Paglioli - Processing: R. Colombari

M104: The Sombrero Galaxy
Image Data: NASA, ESO , NAOJ, Giovanni Paglioli – Processing: R. Colombari

 

 

February Is Black History Month

A primitive-style painting by W.H. Johnson of WWII soldiers, Training for War

A 20th century painting by W.H. Johnson of WWII soldiers, Training for War. William Henry Johnson was an African-American painter, who studied modernism in NYC and Paris, where he developed his popular primitive style.

Monthly Themes

Nowadays, it seems that every month of the year has at least several attached themes that are designed to inspire the enlightened person to take at least a small glimpse outside the world, which surrounds them. February is no exception, for this winter month has several themes associated with it. February is Children’s Dental Health Month, Cholangiocarcinoma Awareness Month, Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, Senior Independence Month, National Bird-feeding Month and last but not least is National Condom Month. Nonetheless, by far the most widely known theme for this, the shortest month of the year is Black History Month.

The Slave Ship was done by the English painter, JWM Turner, in 1840 during the heyday of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Based on the real life event, whereabouts an English sea captain through over a hundred slaves overboard on a trans-Atlantic voyage  to the New World, this piece of art helped raise awareness to the horrors of the booming business of importing African slaves to the Americas.

The Slave Ship was done by the English painter, JWM Turner, in 1840 during the heyday of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Based on the real life event, whereabouts an English sea captain through over a hundred slaves overboard on a trans-Atlantic voyage to the New World, this piece of art helped raise awareness to the horrors of the booming business of importing African slaves to the Americas.

Black History

No matter how you look at it, Black History is inevitably linked to slavery. Even though African slaves had been brought to Europe and other places before Columbus,
the transatlantic travels of the great explorer opened the door for the slave trade. Beginning in 1502, Portuguese
and Spanish ships routinely carried slaves from Africa to the New World. Even though black slavery in America
ended in 1863, the aftereffects and legacy of this human condition still carries on into the present. And this is the essence of American black history.

Barrack Obama was the first black president elected to the White House. He took the oath of office in 2009 and will leave the White House in January 2017.

Barrack Obama was the first black president elected to the White House. He took the oath of office in 2009 and will leave the White House in January 2017.

Beyond Slavery

There is a lot more to Black History than just slavery, especially if you consider that the Emancipation Act was passed just over a 150 years ago.
Since then, the essence of Black History has been about urban migration, de-segregation of the schools, voting rights, equal pay and fair housing.
Also of importance, has been the individual accomplishments of various individuals from the black community. This includes not only politicians,
like our current president, but also, a long list of athletes, actors, musicians, visual artists and authors.

Writing A Story About Black History

Anybody can write a story about Black History. Mark Twain explored new ground with his colorful 19th century
story of Huck Finn and Jim (a runaway slave) and their journey down the mighty Mississippi. Their journey did not end in freedom for Jim, but the struggles
of the two vagabonds has captured the hearts and minds of many readers, ever since the novel was first published in 1884. Since then many literary works,
songs and films have dealt with the sensitive subject of race relations in America. A list of other such classics, viewed from a white viewpoint might include
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Go Down Moses by William Faulkner and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
In fact, February might be a good month to read one of these classics, but don’t stop here for there are many books that have been published
over the years that deal with this important subject.

Two Offbeat American Holidays…..Back To Back

A Super Bowl stadium collaged with two images depicting Groundhog Day

A Super Bowl stadium collaged with two images depicting Groundhog Day

Winter

Winter is 13 weeks long….and depending where you live – this can be a short 13 weeks or a very long thirteen weeks. Also part of the equation is whether you enjoy outdoor winter sports……or not. For an avid skier, a warm winter with no snow can make for a very long winter and an economically bad season, as well, especially…. if he or she happens to be employed with the ski industry. However, for the most of the rest of us, it is a long ways from the winter solstice to the spring equinox. Perhaps, this explains why there are so many joyous holiday within this time period. Without Christmas, New Years Day, Valentines Day and St. Patrick’s Day, this quarter of the year would be a whole lot, less bearable.

Midwinter

Strangely enough,  two of our most offbeat holidays occur right at the midwinter mark. In fact, this year they fall on consecutive days. If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m talking about Super Bowl Sunday and Groundhogs Day, which just happen to respectively occur on the first and second day of February. The combination of the two just might maks for a great way to revel in the fact that winter is half over.

Bad Year For the NFL

A recent news story about the jurors in the Aaron Hernandez trial illustrates just how low the NFL has fallen during the current season. Judy Garsh, judge for the Hernandez trial, has ruled that the jurors can watch the Super Bowl, only if the name of Aaron Hernandez is not mentioned. And, if one of the newscasters has a slip of the tongue, then the unlucky viewers will  have to turn the game off. Now that’s bizarre. Combine this situation with all the sex abuse allegations and the recent deflate-gate controversy surrounding the Patriots victory over the Colts and it becomes quite clear that the NFL commissioners (and many fans as well) with have very good reason to celebrate Groundhogs Day on Monday. Yeah!!!! the season’s finally over.

A Cult Movie Accents an Offbeat Holiday

Look through the comedy section of any movie DVD store (or online site) and you will see hundreds of listings with catchy titles that fail to deliver. Strangely enough, one of the perennial favorites is Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. When first released in 19992, the movie was well received and got favorable reviews. Since then the film has grown in stature, so that nowadays, the popular fantasy fare is consistently listed as one of the top ten comedies and sometimes even included as one of the ten best films ever. So if you have yet to see this film, you might want to give it a viewing. And if one of the announcers slips up and mentions Aaron Hernandez’s name, you can show solidarity with the 18 jurors and turn off the sports contest and put on the groundhog movie.

Qui est Charlie Hebdo, exactement?

Danger, Smile!!!  photo by author

Danger, Smile!!! photo by author

The Charlie Hebdo Affair

Even though it’s been several weeks since the horrific killing at the weekly newspaper office and the kosher grocery store in Paris, the fictional character of Charlie Hebdo is still making headlines around the world. The main reason for Charlie Hebdo remaining in the news is that street demonstrations in many parts of the world are still erupting, especially in nations with large Muslim populations. For the most part the mass protests have been peaceful, but on occasion violence and even deaths have resulted from the public actions.  Even when these demonstrations and acts of violence have come to pass, the name of Charlie Hebdo will be one that is not soon forgotten.

Not So French

When I first heard the news about the attack on the newspaper offices, my first reaction was where did this name come from. Part of my surprise comes from the fact that I have traveled in France and Quebec, and even though my comprehension of the language is not very good, I knew enough to surmise that this is not a common French expression. Charles DeGaulle, now that is French, but Charlie Hebdo, who in the hell is he????

News Flashes Leave Unanswered Questions

Unfortunately, this news story did not end with the dozen people killed at the magazine office. Sadly to say, a couple of days later another killing spree occurred at a Paris Kosher store that left five more people dead. Only after the assailants were killed and the loss of life came to a halt, were we able to step back and take a look at why the activities of the satirical publication were taken with such hatred and outrage. It was also at this time that the meaning of the words were first discussed in any detail.

Charlie_Brown

Good Ole Charlie Brown

As it turns out the Charlie in Charlie Hebdo comes from the American comic strip called Peanuts, where the main character is an ageless middle-grader, named Charlie Brown. So popular is this cartoon that it continues to appear in many daily newspapers, even though its creator, Charles Schultz, has passed on to that great cartooning cloud in the sky. Though I am proud that a major French publication would name their weekly rag on a popular American “funny”, it is beyond me to figure out how Charlie Hebdo became so ghastly humorous.

And Then There Is This Word Hebdo

A t first glance hebdo looks like a Spanish word, but on further examination, the Greek-rooted word, (hebdomos in Greek) is an archaic reference to the number “7”. In this context, hebdo becomes a publication that is put out every seven days or once a week……And it is also a satirical effort that honors Charles Schultz, Peanuts and Charlie Brown.

Know Thy Enemy   or Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo

As far as I am concerned, all of this just does not add up. The satire put forth by Charlie Hebdo is so far removed from the comic strip that it would be laughable, if it had not lead to the death of so many people. Over the ages Europe, including France has been party to invasions from the Islamic world. The siege of Vienna in the 1600s and the Moorish influence in Spain are the two such events that come to mind, though I now understand that there are other similar acts in European history.

Given these historical incidents, I would think that the French satirists would do better in their roasting and ridicule of non-European foreign entities. I have no idea how this story will end, but I cannot see how this conflict will not become more caustic in the near future.