Saturday, February 25, 2006
Starring: Anthony Hopkins
Red Flags: Mild Brief Language, Intense Depiction Of Urinary & Heart Troubles
Somebody like Burt Munro is probably living in your neighborhood. You know him -- he's the guy who's always tweaking and tinkering. Maybe it's the lawn, his car, his stereo system, his spare room. You ask him a question about what he's doing and you unlock a spot in his heart. Out pours his devotion and his inside knowledge of fertilizer, grass seed, transmissions, motor oil, timing belts, signal-to-noise ratio, acoustics, Dolby Digital, drywall... etc, etc.
Anthony Hopkins gives his most memorable performance since Hannibal Lechter as Munro, a lovable, elderly New Zealander transfixed with building a very fast motorcycle in the 1960's. The real Munro set several land speed records, one of which still holds to this day. He is a precocious, overgrown kid, and a motorhead with a heart of gold. Building a fast bike consumes nearly all of his time and his living space -- a rickety shed surrounded by a weedy lawn. Be careful when you ask him to cut the grass.
The "Indian" in the title refers to Munro's labor of love: a 1920's-era Indian bike he has tuned and tinkered with for years in hopes of one day taking it to the salt flats of Utah to see how fast she'll go. When confronted with heart trouble, he decides he can't wait much longer to fulfill his dream.
Allow me to borrow a sentiment from fellow critic Phil Villarreal of the Arizona Daily Star, who saw Munro as Hannibal with all his evil turned inside out. Munro constantly exhibits an infectious, easygoing Kiwi friendliness bordering on naivete -- but not crossing the line. Seeing him hit it off with a parade of characters on his way to Utah is the film's engine. We watch Munro talk his way through dilemmas and predicaments like it's no skin off his nose. We watch him brush off the danger of bodily harm. When someone suggests he might lose a leg making his record-breaking run through the flats, he replies, "I've got a spare."
Munro's verbal mechanics are more satisfying to watch than any tricked-out motorcycle, and that's what makes the film work. You know what's going to happen. You know Munro will succeed. You want the old bloke to succeed. And then you'd like to take him out for a drink afterward... as long as it's tea, mind you.
The World's Fastest Indian is heartfelt without a Hollywood sugar coating. Sadly, it's playing mainly in art-house cinemas, so see it where you can while you can. As Bill might say, "lets take 'er out fora run."
Friday, February 24, 2006
My station, KOLD, broadcast this year's Tucson Rodeo Parade live. And we also became the lead story when a horse pulling the KOLD parade wagon got spooked and bugged out.
Picture this: a wagon full of reporters and anchors -- along with a few of their children -- careening down the street at what was probably 30 miles per hour... and smashing into the back of the wagon pulling Mayor Bob Walkup and the First Lady. This could've been a disaster. Thankfully, all hizzoner and his wife sustained were a couple of bruises.
And did I mention this was all caught on tape?
Read the story and watch the coverage here.
You have to give an A+ to the drivers handling the buggy. In less experienced hands, that buggy could've gone right into the crowds. I'm still amazed it didn't.
Horses will spook for a lot of reasons. We still don't know why ours did. Perhaps somebody said, "Frau Blucher?"
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
"I feel strongly that producers need connections away from work. Even if you think you are only going to be in a place a couple of years, join a church, a community group, volunteer at the humane society, do local theatre, something to be with "real" people. Newsroom culture, in general, is not "real" - we are more sensitive to certain ideas and points of view and don't have much experience with others because most news people are "alike." We need to "get out" and see what "real" people are like."Amen. If you are a regular reader of FrancisPage, you can tell I've been finding escapes... even if that means rolling the clock back 200 years or so!
I have come close to quitting the business. That was in 1999, at a previous station in Texas. I had just been promoted off of weekends to a weekday job producing the 6 and 10pm newscasts. What I didn't realize at the time was that I was about to inherit a whole new set of headaches. They came in the form of an uptight anchor, a moody news director, several staffers who were mailing it in, and another producer who was slacking and sliding. It just got worse as the weeks rolled by. I dealt with it by going out to the movies on my newly liberated weekends... sometimes two features a day.
I never will forget the meeting I had with a consultant in August of that year. It came a few weeks after I had worked a very long weekend producing coverage of Hurricane Bret, which mercifully had spared most of populated Texas its full wrath. The first words out of his mouth were not encouraging.
"So, I hear your hurricane coverage sucked."
Huh? What? I worked all weekend on this, with lots of help from my assistant news director. We were working with people who had never covered a hurricane before and were learning on the job. We had people who had never done live, sustaining coverage for the amount of time we did it. And capping this all off, when all hands were supposed to have been on deck, when all of us were working mad hours, that one slider producer managed to slip out of town with no consequences to her employment.
My response to that consultant was that of polite surprise. But maybe I shouldn't have pulled punches. I should've said something like this:
"Look, here's the honest truth. We hire high school people for editors. We hire the same for photographers and camera crews. We don't pay diddly. We put interns in where experienced people should go. We have a hot-headed news director. We have a nightbeat reporter with relationship issues that are spilling into the newsroom. We have too many newbies who can't write to save their lives. I'm getting hit from three sides between management, anchors and my own gut. And if this keeps up, I'm going to be chewing on the end of a gun barrel and leaving behind a bunch of people who don't understand it."
I don't know what he would've done. Maybe he would've run out of the room. I'll never know.
Three months later, I escaped to a new producing job -- a new station, a new city, a chance to renew myself. I wouldn't trade the staff I work with every night for anything. They have become a second family to me. I'm still seeing movies, but the pains of labor are not threatening to break me. And in finding another life outside the station I have found new perspective and new hope. My co-workers support me in these endeavors as I support them every day on the job. For that, I am grateful. And every day I am alive I feel blessed.
Sunday, February 19, 2006
The appointed hour approached and I switched back to my original plan: that lace jabot did indeed look better with the rented coat. I marveled at the comfort of my waistcoat and breeches, the finest handiwork of My Dearest Aunt Susan. She donated her services upon learning of my previous step back in the past. Those gold buttons at the knees -- how fitting and proper!
One hundred and fifty were expected for The George Washington Birthday Ball. His Excellency, hero to a nation, stood at the door greeting the crowds as they entered, including a few members of the Continental Army -- myself among them. Fortunately, my carriage was not delayed by any weather nor Phoen-- uh, Virginia-- traffic.
As generations would pay tribute, the timeline stretched to include them: a Union officer, a Confederate officer, a couple of World War II enlisted men, a 16th Century Englishman... but curiously, no redcoats. Were they plotting a sneak attack? In a setting where the Blue and the Grey danced together, surely a British Regular might fancy a turn or two. Even King George III came to respect His Excellency.
We posed for many pictures. I stood alone for a pair, but Mr. Washington was kind enough to escort a charming young lady over to pose with me. The shutter snapped, and then I bowed to her deeply, my three-cornered hat removed in the utmost respect.
"Wait, wait, that's the pose!" the general cried, and he summoned us back over to resume our honors as flashbulbs went off like rifle shots.
The ladies stood out in their finest ball gowns, accompanied by many young men in modern-day formal attire. They could have all resembled future presidents, a thought not lost on President Washington, who entertained them with many historical facts as they took on the roles of presidents past.
"Let's get this party started."
The Pledge Of Allegiance, The National Anthem, and now, the promenade. As "Hail To The Chief" and "Yankee Doodle" played, I thought I knew this dance. But new steps are always the rule. Picture the long line of couples linking and weaving out of the crowds, the line of partners splitting up and rejoining and joining again in configurations that would challenge the expert at the loom.
I still consider myself a novice to English country dancing, but I know what I like.
"Christ Church's Bells..."
Oh joy! The first set dance of the evening was my favorite of the previous ball. No complicated steps, no serpentine movements.
Then came "Come, Let's Be Merry" -- a three-couple set dance. This could be trouble. I sense some complicated figures ahead. But behold, this dance produced "the moment."
One part of the dance calls for the lead couple to waltz up the line. You can do it one of three ways, each more or less like ballroom dancing, but it's the man who decides. I chose the simplest means. So now I stepped to the three-quarter time with my partner, a beautiful lady in a floral gown, our inside hands joined as if we were performing a minuet. I would turn to face her on alternating beats, my eyes catching hers back and forth. My smile grew wide. Her eyes twinkled.
Many times it's not nice to tease, but in "Away To The Camp," another three-couple dance, the women and men take turns parading around each other. And it's quite all right, as Mr. Washington demonstrated, to tweak or tickle a lock of a fine lady's hair as you pass behind her. And likewise, they returned the favor!
Several breaks allowed us to cool down and seek refreshment. My costume breathed better this time and I needed little fanning. My feet were stronger. After the throbbing of the last night of dance and revelry, I had sought out the sole comforts of a doctor named Scholl. Already my calves were thanking me.
Eighteenth-century men, as the general pointed out at one point, would sometimes augment their stockinged calves with cork to provide a more attractive form to interest the opposite sex. I wonder though, if it did anything to ease pain.
You can't have a birthday party without cake. And First Lady Martha presented a fine one to her husband with the number 274 atop the white and blue frosting.
"I stopped counting at 200," President Washington quipped.
We also celebrated two other birthdays this night, singing and shouting a hearty "HUZZAH" to some young people. And two women were honored for their service to the community and the greater good: a woman with the staff of the Fitch Center, and an outstanding teacher. Their delight: cherry pies and an outpouring of appreciation.
"This is called 'All Haste To The Wedding.'"
Oh yes, that one I'd learned in Williamsburg and another close to my heart. At such times I skip about in the finest of cheer, my feet aching to do more than walk through the figures. Could I be loving this too much?
"Why is your right hand raised?" one lady asked, jesting at my joyfulness as we performed a "left-hand star."
I am all in the moment, I replied. I think.
Even soldiers were gentlemen, men who had learned to dance respectfully in their youth. Washington himself earned a reputation as a fine dancer. And I could think of no better way to honor that tradition than to add an extra touch of glee... for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, always capped off at the end with a deep bow to my lady partners and a heartfelt sentiment: "Thank you for a most enjoyable dance!"
You know the cliche: careful what you wish for. I wondered if we might try a quadrille or the Virginia Reel. We did.
My little group of four couples agonized through the first few steps of the quadrille. Were we doing this right? Is that partner supposed to end up over there? Are we supposed to switch off or something? Turns out we were doing right all along, and relief washed over us.
Then came the reel, and my set ran into trouble. The reel sent myself and others, well, reeling as the head couple worked the way down the set, left hand turning our partner, right hand down the line, left turn... wait, that was supposed to be a right turn. Fall behind, even for a moment, and you fall out of synch.
"Reels are a lot of fun," I recall a Colonial Williamsburg interpreter saying, "but they can be absolutely painful."
No pain here. We messed up, we continued on and laughed it off. My nightmare scenario did not come to pass, one where a lady or gentleman would turn away in a huff, silently grumbling at the lack of a partner's grace if the other should trip all over the floor.
A slow waltz with "your favorite partner" closed the evening once again. Without a partner, I once again sought out another lady I had not danced with that evening, keeping true to my tradition of trying to dance with as many different women as possible. We stuck to simple steps, her not being that much of a waltzer, but I had to throw in a couple of twirls.
"Your friend dances much better than she knows," I said as I escorted her back to her friends.
Goodbye. Good night. God Bless You All.
* * *
Several people in the motel room parking lot spotted me making the walk back to my room, fully costumed, haversack over my shoulder.
"The British are coming! The British are coming!" shouted one, leaning outside his second-floor room with a buddy. I saluted them, and I gave another one to a woman talking on a cell phone who waved.
The stroke of midnight found me back in my car and re-clothed in my 21st Century attire. My mission was not to roust the militia to arms but find a late-night snack. Still, my three-cornered hat laid in the empty seat beside me.
Perhaps it was hunger, or a touch of fatigue, but a nattering question loosed itself from the back of my mind.
Francis, why do you do this?
Look at yourself. What compels you to dress in a style 200 years prior to your birth and perform dances seven times older than you? You're in your thirties and you're prancing around out there like an overgrown kid.
Maybe. But I'm not a juvenile delinquent, either.
Because it uplifts me.
Lord Scott, at one point in the evening, talked about "raising the bar" for our culture using the talents and gifts that we have. I am not sure how being a TV news producer in 2006 fits with stepping into the role and accoutrements of an 18th Century gentleman.
But this much I know: If I put on a tricorn and breeches in this day, it's with the intention of being a better person for it. If my joy on the dance floor rubs off on others, if it improves my disposition to life and my family, friends, co-workers and even a stranger or two, that counts as a victory.
So come, let us be merry!
See more pictures -- and more reflections -- from this celebration at this link!
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Here is what we told viewers before the story aired:
Media outlets across the country are debating whether to print the cartoons or broadcast them. Our media partner, the Tucson Citizen is conducting an online poll. And so far, 65 percent of respondents are saying they should run either in the paper or online.You can read Teresa Jun's excellent story at this link, which also has a video link to the story (and the disclaimer before it) as it aired.
Tonight we talk with an Israeli political cartoonist visiting Tucson and with a spokesman for Tucson's Islamic community. After much debate in our newsroom, we decided to show the cartoons, but only in the context in which they are discussed here. If you think you may be offended, please turn off your television. This is not to incite, but to give Tucsonans and southern Arizonans some insight into what this controversy is all about.
Some honesty: I pitched this story. I believe in free speech. I couldn't honestly call myself a patriot if I didn't. At the same time, I believe rights come with responsibilities -- the old "yelling fire in a crowded theater" exception is one we can all recognize. I also believe it means being respectful of other religions. This story, again, was right on the mark.
But know this also: In Teresa's story, Muhammad As'ad urges the rioting Muslims overseas to "just cool it." I wish Al-Jazerra would broadcast that comment once for every time they've run an Al-Qaida tape. Islam is not a religion of violence. But unfortunately, the moderate, peaceful Muslims have allowed their religion to be co-opted by the radicals. Teresa's story might not have been necessary if more people understood the true nature of Islam.
You wouldn't think of Catholics as abortion-clinic bombers. You wouldn't see Jews as hook-nosed. But mention "Muslim," and I imagine a lot of you are going to have some vision of a person an explosive device. Your better judgment knows it's false, but that's not what you see when you turn on the news.
If we are going to fight a War On Terror against radical Muslims, the moderates cannot sit on the sidelines. It is high time that they started taking their religion back, changing the perception, and getting the truth out there. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is trying, but they have also taken heat for extremists in the ranks. One group is not going to get it done. It's going to take a lot of time, a lot of unity, and likely a lot of TV Public Service Announcements before the message gets out.
Saturday, February 11, 2006
Starring: Harrison Ford, Paul Bettany, Virginia Madsen
Red Flags: Violence (high), Language (low)
Harrison Ford has every right to say he's getting too old for this. He's blasted his way out of Mos Eisley as Han Solo, cracked the whip as Indiana Jones, chased replicants in Blade Runner, thrown around some executive power in Air Force One, done the super-spook thing in Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger, and run for his life in The Fugitive. When he caught a breath, he did the less pulse-pounding Sabrina, Regarding Henry and Working Girl. A lot of people would decide to mellow out. Then came Hollywood Homicide, and the lovable action hero was back, running around with a blaster and trying to ride a kid's bike. Another Indiana Jones picture is in the works.
So I watch Ford in Firewall and see an old friend sucked back into a genre I'm not sure he can handle after all these years. And yet he shows he can. Indiana Jones 4 will not break him in half.
Ford plays Jack Stanfield, a bank security manager who becomes the pawn of slick thief Bill Cox (Bettany), who comes from that large family of British-accented movie thieves. Cox has done his homework. You can spend a lot of time and bandwith breaking into a bank's iron-wall computer system, or you can kidnap the security manager's wife and two kids and force him to do it for you. So Cox and his gang of nerd henchmen strike, and they wire up Stanfield with a hidden camera and microphone to do their bidding. For that extra wrinkle, Jack's bank is in the middle of a merger, one rife with security concerns.
Firewall plays out like a standard hostage-thriller procedural, even though it baits us with possibilties -- an escape, reverse psychology on the henchmen, biological warfare involving a child allergic to peanuts. You'll have to find out for yourself how those scenarios play out, but when they do, they're at least a welcome diversion, if anything. As with all hostage-thrillers, the hostage(s) change(s) the game at some point, and somebody else ends up on the other end of the gun. The only thing to deduce is when this is going to happen, and will it happen in a way that makes sense. Here it seems to, but with some reservations.
Computer technology is at the core of Firewall, which is Silly Putty in the hands of a screenwriter. The means by which Stanfield enables the theft looks like a hardware hack from the pages of Make magazine. Like writing a computer program to solve a complex problem, screenwriters can fall back on a combination of homebrew software and hardware to fulfill their plot device needs. They willfully invent devices and keyboard commands that exist only in the PC landscape of Hollywood. And audiences don't mind any of this phoniness, including the pen camera than can somehow send a clear signal to a van sitting several stories below with not a hint of fuzz.
The Matrix taught us computer systems are designed around rules which can be bent or broken if need be. Morpheus was right, both in our world and his -- but mostly his.
Thursday, February 9, 2006
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
Sunday, February 5, 2006
Both Sides ThenCaught In The Middle Of The "Battle Of Winchester"
“We are going to be invaded,” said Miss Kay, putting a dark period on a sentence inside the one-room schoolhouse.
The warning seemed out of place amidst the teacher’s inviting nature. Wooden desks in front of her stood at attention, equipped with fountain pens and writing books stamped with the motto “try, try again.” In one corner lay pocket-sized schoolbooks on arithmetic and grammar. A chess set and marbles sat in another corner. Rays of light pierced holes in the roof, pricking the floor. Facing the blackboard at front, one saw the teacher’s name and a mild admonition: “Please, only kind words!”
“Come, come to school!” the teacher coaxed, and the children outside in the unseasonably warm February morning wandered in. They forgot it was Saturday, forgot it was Arizona, and forgot -- for the time -- the threat beyond their sight.
Pioneer Village, a living history museum north of Phoenix, had morphed into town of Winchester, Virginia during the Civil War. The town of loyal, Confederate Virginians was in the sights of Union soldiers. And numerous civilians, myself among them, were about to see a dramatic slice of life during wartime as portrayed by members of We Make History and various re-enactors and actors portraying the Blue and the Grey.
Morning drifted towards afternoon with uncertainty and a sense of trouble ahead. Confederate troops lined up early that morning to hear the yanks were on the move, headed in this direction.
I wandered about the various parts of the town: the Victorian house, the bank, the print shop, the church, the schoolhouse, soaking up history. During this time, the Confederate commander wandered over.
The person, I had met before at a certain ball. His character, I had not.
Yet he seemed to know me and I introduced myself again as before.
“Christopher Francis of Tucson,” I said.
We chatted for a bit, in character, as Captain Scott thanked me for making the journey and introduced me to a member of the 1st Virginia. Without much effort, my voice lapsed into a southern drawl.
“I hear there might be trouble,” I commented, still in something resembling character.
Yes, there was. Capt. Scott was well aware of the movement of the Union forces. “But I am confident we shall hold this town,” he said, unwavering in his convictions.
“Are you here buying or selling on Market Day?” the member of the battalion asked.
“Both,” I said. “Buy here, sell there. I go both ways.”
Our talk turned to the weather and I remarked how warm it was, with the temperature headed towards the 80’s and how winter seemed so unreasonably mild.
“I swear we haven’t even seen any snow on Mt. Lemmon,” I said.
“Mt. Lemmon?” Capt. Scott replied.
Ugggghhh. I’d blown it. That part of my brain still wired to Tucson had cracked out of turn and I’d thrown him for a loop. But a member of his battalion stepped in to make the save, suggesting I was talking about a mountain in Virginia.
“I’m a little geographically challenged right now,” I said sheepishly.
But Capt. Scott took it in stride, asking how the men at Virginia Military Institute were. I didn’t know the answer, but I made up the best one I could.
“They’re doin’ just fine. They’re off and out there,” I said, perhaps trying to draw a parallel in my mind to the reporting staff I supervise.
At eleven in the morning, the rumors proved true. A Confederate lookout ran back into town. “They’re coming!”
A nervous townswoman or two ran to the commander, begging them to hold off the Yankees. Consoled, all they could do was wait.
“Citizens of Winchester,” Capt. Scott announced, “there’s gonna be a fight. I’m sorry this is happening on Market Day, but we need everyone to get to the side of the building here.”
Minutes later, the Union soldiers moved in. Volleys of shots sprayed across the green of the town square, punctuated by cannon fire. When the gun smoke lifted, one Confederate soldier lay dead and two others wounded. The others had retreated. Those Yankees had won this round.
Women and girls in hoopskirts huddled over the casualties as a few stray shots rang out in the distance.
“We must remain strong! We are Virginia women!”
As medics carried the injured off to the medical triage, the ladies of Winchester took their outrage to the Union soldiers.
“How dare you invade our peaceful town!”
A particularly cunning lady snatched a Union officer’s sword and waved it at him, itching for a fight. He dispatched her with a pistol shot.
“You have no right to call yourself a gentleman!” a woman spat.
“I never called myself a gentleman,” the commander replied, seizing her and laying on a forced sloppy kiss.
The crowds of modern-day townsfolk were choosing a side now. No longer neutral, scattered children and adults took great pleasure in shouting “Yankee scum!” over and over.
“Who said that? Bring him here!” the Union commanders would shout, often in vain.
Back at the triage, more shots rang out. Someone had wounded a Union officer as he argued with a lady, injecting a ray of light into the mournful countenances of the Winchester women.
Half an hour later, a Union commander of Irish stock gathered the townsfolk around the veranda in the center of town.
“Martial law is now in effect!”
The crowd booed.
The Union troops would take money, livestock, and whatever else they needed under authority of President Abraham Lincoln.
Hearing his name left the newly-minted Confederate sympathizers in a quandary. Though hating the troops, they still loved the president. Nobody booed.
“We have our own president!” ladies protested.
The next order of business: a census. All the townspeople -- mainly the ladies for the purpose of this historic exercise -- were to sign a roll. And sign they did, all stating the name of “Sarah Lee.”
The act of defiance frustrated the Union official, so much that he declared the next person to state that name would be taken around back and shot.
“But sir,” one soldier pointed out. “If we shoot these ladies we won’t have enough ammunition left.”
A battle of bullets had progressed into a war of wits. Those filthy, wretched Yankees could take the town, but not the hearts and minds.
The siege grew fiercer.
Union soldiers went door to door taking silverware and whatever else they wanted.
A raid on the bank made their payroll, as they sent the banker to jail with a loud skirmish reminiscent of the Wild West.
The mayor of Winchester narrowly prevented a hanging with his pleas for justice for an accused man.
I found myself confronted by a Union soldier demanding to see inside my backpack as I wandered in a direction he didn’t like. All I could focus on was the sharp point of his bayonet as I fumbled with the zipper.
And the taunting continued, as a group of ladies picnicking under a tree sang “The Bonny Blue Flag” within earshot of the enemy.
Three hours after the occupation had begun, help arrived. Stonewall Jackson’s men came in, and with more volleys, smoke and fire, the rebels reclaimed the town.
“Hip hip, huzzah! Hip hip, huzzah! Hip hip, huzzah!”
The spectacle wound down beneath the shade of a tree in the town square, as Capt. Scott called the spectators together with the Union and Confederate Armies filing back in.
“We have compressed about two months of history into a few hours,” he explained with an invitation to meet and ask questions of the various re-enactors. The kids went first, asking about gunpowder. But I still stood in admiration, at a loss for a question.
However, I had one for a lady of Winchester.
“That bit where you all signed in as Sarah Lee. I gather that was an act of defiance. Did it actually happen like that?”
Actually, it was improvised on the spot, she explained. And everybody went with it.
For all the planning, studying, and broad outlining, the magic had come through again. They had become their characters both in words and spirit.
“You do so well at what you do,” I said. “I just find it absolutely amazing.”
My comments heartened her. She was still learning and was glad to hear I enjoyed it so much.
And once again, I prepared for the long trip back across the Shenandoah… back to southern Virginia… southern Arizona… wherever Mt. Lemmon was, anyway.