Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Summer Place


A Summer Place [1959] is one of those Hollywood potboilers that filled theaters decades ago and now pops up on AMC and TCM. Based on Sloan Wilson’s novel, it is a 1950s coming of age epic that treats the viewer to some of the best footage of the coast and islands of Maine that can be found. Rocks and waves galore, unfortunately it is all California.

The story is that of a crumbling family desperately attempting to hold on to the family’s island resort home. Arthur Kennedy and Dorothy McGuire are the last remnants of the family. His drinking is damaging her ability to keep the guests they have. Richard Egan, a lifeguard at the place long ago aMV5BMjE3MzkyMzUxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzE3NjM0MQ@@._V1._SY317_CR25,0,214,317_nd now wealthy, and his wife Constance Ford show up and the sparks fly. The lifeguard is now the rich guest. Kennedy cannot stand it. Of course, Egan and McGuire had an affair during the earlier era, but then moved on, though not in their hearts.

Complicating this are the children played by Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee. They fall for each other amid struggles over virginity, love, kissing, sex, and what ever else they can toss in. Here in 2004, one wonders about the quaintness of it all. Troy and Sandra move ahead in their love, while Egan and McGuire rekindle.

The setting for all of this action is Pine Island. Even the opening credits have the crashing of waves, all set to Max Steiner’s brilliant music. [Percy Faith’s more famous Theme from a Summer Place is actually the love motif for Dee and Donahue. If you can recall dancing to that, or have the record album, then you are a true child of the early 60s.] Donahue takes Dee on a sail around the island ending in a wreck. The crashing waves take their toll mostly on the parents. Everything comes to a head with Egan and McGuire getting back together after twin divorces. Donahue and Dee find themselves in each other’s arms after a little more time.

The most spectacular scenes come as Dee and Donahue visit the now married Egan and McGuire in their prairie-style Frank Lloyd Wright home on the beach. If you are into Wright, you just want to join them in this magnificent house. If you just need to see it: try www.geocities.com/soho/1469/ca_walk.jpg. The site lists it as the Mrs. Clinton Walker house, on the beach in Carmel, CA as built in 1948 and since altered by another architect.

The human setting is one that shows the pleasant summers of Maine, but contrasts that with descriptions and suggestions of the lonely nature of island life during the winter. Health care requires notifying the Coast Guard for transportation. The mail comes by boat. The place screams “empty.” Aside from the geographic elements, the film is a time capsule of the values and questions of the 1950s. Dee worries about dabbling in a sexual world while remaining a “good girl.” The parents tussle over admitting their children have sexual sides, or whether to place them in straight jackets while ignoring the issue. In the end Dorothy McGuire has the classic line, said to her son played by Donahue: “We live in a glass house. We’re not throwing any stones.”

As it goes in the world of Hollywood, it appears that the movie was made in California. The Film in America web site claims that Monterey County was the filming site. Oh well, I guess ocean waves look alike when they crash. So you are getting the West Coast version of the East Coast. But then, they claim the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty was made there, too. That is one of the issues involved in Hollywood’s presentation of the world: the film maker can make one place into another. In the end it is all beautiful, if only a bit mislocated.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2002. Geography in Media: A Summer Place. Dakota Alliance XIV (2): April-May 2004: 7.

Monday, May 13, 2013

South Pacific


South Pacific is one of the classics of the American Theater, and part of a current wave of revivals; it is a musical journey to what I consider one of the most geographically attractive areas of the globe. Certainly as I look back at my development as a geographer, books and movies on the South Pacific loom very large in pushing me into the field. The National Geographic took me there starting around 1962, In high school and college I acted in productions of South Pacific, and read bo51HRPJZW7BLoks on the place. Even today I subscribe to Islands magazine and get dreamy over every issue.

South Pacific is the creation of Richard Rogers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein, II (lyrics). It traces itself back to James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific (another item on my high school reading list).

The songs are the show in this one. The grand overture sets the stage for the sweep of the waves (it was not included in the Fritz production, but the videotape has it). "Some Enchanted Evening" is one of the great love songs. Bali Ha'i, itself, casts a mystical mood over those caught by the lure of the islands, but trapped by snow drifts, city traffic, or too many committee meetings (one of those has to apply to each of you). "Carefully Taught" brings in the message of tolerance, or the world's lack of it. The comedy tunes lighten the ultimately romantic and tragic mist of the story. There is even sexism in "There is nothin' like a dame." (It is World War II.)

The setting is the beautiful South Pacific. Every production has the expected palm trees and sparkling water, but remember that even details of life in the region are shown. For instance, Bloody Mary is Tokinese. She represents the heavy Asian (Chinese, Indian) immigration into the island realm.

As we teach geography we have to remember that we love it because it personally says something to us. We fell in love with specific places, or places in general. This pushed us into the field. South Pacific is one more opportunity to catch some kid's imagination and bring her/him into the fold.

For your classroom, the 1958 film version, widely available at cheap prices on DVD, was produced in Kauai, Hawaii, with some of the Bali Ha'i scenes shot in Fiji. Charles Champlin [Ballyho and Bali Ha'i: Hollywood's love affair with the South Seas. 1994. Islands (October): 160] points out that filming on one island andSouth_pac_reba_2005 calling it another is very common in Hollywood productions about the Southern Pacific region. So, we combine geographic theater with great songs and educational themes. A true classic.

If your room is filled with Country Music fans, then the Carnegie Hall version with Reba Macintyre as Nelly Forbush could be your choice. The geography is diminished as this is a concert version. However, you can draw her fans into the story. At the time her casting was criticized by the eastern press, but what would a girl from Little Rock sound like if not Reba Macintyre?

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 1995. Media Beat: South Pacific. Dakota Alliance January 1995: 7.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Shogun [1980]


Shogun takes us back to both an earlier time in television history and a significant point in the history of Japan. James Clavell's novel was transformed into a spectacular and well-watched mini-series in the early 1980s. It follows the exploits of a ship's pilot named Blackthorne as he leads a crew into the unknown world of Japan around 1600. Crossing the Pacific Ocean was not easy; but attempting to make inroads into the Portuguese controlled Far East would prove harder.

The basic story involves the Englishman Blackthorne's shogunjourney in becoming a samurai. Crash landing in Japan during a wild storm, Blackthorne arrives in a Japan having early relations with the Portuguese. The Pope has given the half of the world containing Japan to the Portuguese. Blackthorne is trying to find his way to this treasure trove. He ends up in the middle of a battle between various factions of the ruling class, and between the Portuguese and that ruling class. The figure who would become Shogun recognizes Blackthorne's animosity toward the Portuguese as a useful trait to nurture. He eventually has Blackthorne isolated in a village where it is decreed that the whole village will be put to death if Blackthorne does not master Japanese in a short set of months. Blackthorne is outraged at this barbarous decree, but he struggles on to learn the difficult language. He meets Mariko who knows English and can translate for him. A love interest develops, only hindered by her death and her samurai husband.

In becoming a samurai, Blackthorne puts himself in the middle of the battle to control Japan. An essential lesson of the book and program is in this battle. Japan is trying to deal with the pressure of a major colonial power. The damage of colonialism is going to be clear in the places seized to the west. Japan is paying tribute, but the question is how to avoid being taken over.

The answer not fully given. After the end of the story Japan will kick the Portuguese out of Japan, trading only with the Dutch and only through the port of Nagasaki. The damage of colonialism is avoided. This will allow Japan to economically develop in the later 1800s without the damage inflicted by the colonial period. In short, without a colonial power in control there is no one to prevent their successful development.

Of course students might question why being a colony was such a bad experience. All one has to note is that Britain was damaging the colonies in New England in the 1700s. That damage cast against the push of Calvinist-based religions to prosper, is the underlying cause of the American Revolution. "Taxation without Representation" was just a theme to get the rest of the colonies to go along. Damage is never even, and the Middle and Southern Colonies were not being damaged at the level New England was. They had agricultural product of value to the system, New England did not. New England wanted to manufacture products, which was Britain's role as the British saw it.

One of the problems in reviewing Shogun for geographic content is that one would just have to suspect that the mini-series is permanently buried in the vaults at Paramount. It was a multi-night affair, and the networks seem to be out of that stage. A two-hour videotape version is available.

Shogun represent the deepest trek into the cultural past of another country that American television has likely made. The focus is on Japanese culture at all levels. The group nature of society, particularly at the village level is brought home with strength. The essence of samurai culture is a central element of the plot.

The videotape does have drawbacks. (1) If you have watched the full series, you might be jarred by how they cut the many hours down to two. (2) Mariko and Blackthorne do take a furo, or bath. She is partially nude. (3) The videotape is based on the first showing of Shogun on television. The Japanese is translated for the viewer only if it is translated to Blackthorne. In the second showing on television subtitles were added. Their appreciation of what was going on increased. This version does give a better experience of what explorers faced in dealing with language. Most students would be unwilling to face that experience.

In the end, this is one of television's finest moments. It is an enriching experience in learning about culture.

The final issue is finding any version of this in 2013. Netflix has the full version available and you will find that superior to the short version. You are making a major commitment in time to that version, but it is worth it.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2002. Geography in Media: Shogun. Dakota Alliance XII (5): November-December 2002: 7.