Saturday, February 3, 2024

Resimplify Me, Chapter 1

I enjoy being surrounded by interesting things, but I need to be surrounded by far fewer interesting things. Too much stuff — too many options — is often paralyzing and stressful. I have more physical media than I will ever get around to in the time I have left. So I am officially embarking upon a long-term project I call Resimplify Me. A good place to start is books, because they are bulky and I have plenty to spare. Realistically, there are only so many 400-page tomes I’m going to read moving forward.

This is going to be a long project. The only place to start is one shelf (or drawer, or box) at a time. On this sunny Saturday morning, I'm beginning on a bookshelf. (Actually, it ended up being two bookshelves.) Shown above is top shelf of the far-right bookcase along my bedroom wall. 

These are my notes from along the way...

1. The top two shelves on this bookcase are world nonfiction. To get to them on the stepladder, I brushed past and jingled the bells that used to hang from the front door of the house on Oak Crest Lane. They're hanging from my bedroom ceiling now. 

2. Sitting atop the book case is the state of Delaware's detailed 1967 plan for responding to a nuclear attack, which I blogged about 12 years ago. I have no idea what to do with it.

3. As I go through this process, bigger books receive greater scrutiny and have a higher bar for surviving the winnowing. One of these thicker books, 2018's The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Space, already seems a bit outdated in this time of the Russia-Ukraine war. Old Soviet ways aren't so old, perhaps. Tim Judah's In Wartime seems to be the more relevant book.

4. I'm expanding today's mini-project a little bit. My aim is now to winnow these top two shelves down to one shelf. Here's the second shelf.

5. As I assess them, there are some easy decisions for pruning. Some of these books veer way too far into an overambitious and overaspirational idea of my finite future reading time. Also, many of these are easily obtainable from a public library if I ever change my mind. So, my philosophy is that I'm keeping certain books that are older, rarer and less likely to be in the public library sytem.

6. Early on, it feels like today's project is going to be a failure: There’s no way I’m going to get these two shelves condensed to one shelf, or even close to one shelf. I love books, ideas and the idea of books. These history books are all meaningful. They are important.

7. 1491, America in 1492, and 1493 all have to go if there's any hope of reaching today's resimplifying goal. All are easily obtained at the library. Browsing America in 1492, I flip to this sentence “Local autonomy in implementing the mit’a labor tax was one of the special characteristics of the system that enhanced its efficiency and flexibility.” I am reassured that I am not going to read 443 pages of this. 

8. I no longer want to read about why Ivan is Terrible, but I am keeping both books about the Trans-Siberian Railway. (I thought I blogged about Kuranov's book, but I guess not.)

9. I have to flip through the books that are being pruned to check for Tucked Away Inside items. Most will be removed and transferred to other volumes. I might leave a select few as easter eggs for future readers.

10. I will cheat and put some of these books elsewhere. Specifically I’m thinking about the vintage tourism guides, such as Romania. Yes, I’m just kicking the can down the road, but it's part of the sorting process.

11. As for what does get pruned, I will try to sell some at Bookmans. (So I can buy more books? Yikes!) I will put some into Little Free Libraries and give the rest to Goodwill. I don't have the energy for Facebook Marketplace, and I’m not at the "sell stuff on eBay" stage of Resimplify Me yet, though that will necessarily come.

Snugs was "helping" and playing with a spring while I pruned.

12. Syrian Yankee is in beautiful shape and it’s signed by the author. Checking on AbeBooks, however, it simply doesn’t have much value. Author Salom Rizk seems to have signed a lot of them. I’m going to take it off the shelf, but decide later about its best new home. These are the kind of mid-century books that were so prevalent on my great-grandfather’s and grandmother’s bookshelves at Oak Crest Lane, and I have a nostalgic weakness for recreating that kind of experience, even while knowing it’s unlikely that there will be future young explorers of my shelves.

13. I’m not a big fan of oversize books, but Riddles of the Sphinx survives this pruning.

14. Why do so many of these books dwell on taxation?

15. I'm cheating again and putting The Land and People of Czechoslovakia with the other old textbooks. So there.

16. Now I need to make some tough decisions about the Native American section and the oddly large Scandinavian section. 

17. Another cheat I’ve deployed over the years: I’m going to leave Simon Winchester’s The River at the Center of the World out on the bedstand to read (and prune thereafter). Minutes, later, I decided to do this with The Almost Nearly Perfect Peopletoo. I found this card tucked away inside that book, and it seemed like exactly the encouragement I need for this ongoing project.

18. I shudder as I realize that I have some unshelved piles of books at the moment. What if I do all this work to make everything fit and then come across another nonfiction book that belongs on this shelf?  

19. Getting very close now. Close enough that I may cut myself some slack and not prune things that I’m unsure about. Also, I have other nonfiction sections that some of these books can fold into. 

20. OK, I’m finished. There was a significant amount of “cheating” and I didn’t get to just one shelf, but I’m very satisfied with the number of books that were pruned (about 18). Looking at what remains, it’s very clear that I have favored stories of people over academic tomes.

21. Only about three dozen shelves to go! (Gulp.)

Monday, January 29, 2024

"The Monster Maker": A sci-fi film about pollution that didn't get made

In James Monaco's 1979 book Alain Resnais1, the author describes a tantalizing film project involving surrealist director Renais and Timely Comics/Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee that, sadly, never came to fruition.

Resnais, who was French, spent some time in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s working on various potential projects. One of those possibilities, as Monaco wrote, involved a documentary about H.P. Lovecraft, with some backing from William Friedkin. But that fell through, possibly because Friedkin got involved with The Exorcist2.

Another idea involved a film, proposed to be titled The Monster Maker, that would be written by Lee. 

Monaco spends part of a chapter on Renais' unrealized projects going into great detail about the project and its origins. The Monster Maker would have followed Larry Morgan ("a producer of grade C horror films") and his regular lead actor, Stephen Cavanaugh. Morgan aspires to produce something greater than schlock. And Cavanaugh, whose wife has recently died, "thinks air pollution was the cause. He goes a little crazy and blackmails Morgan into promising to do a film which will expose the evils of pollution once and for all time," Monaco wrote. The sci-film element comes at the end, with garbage itself becoming the monster (possibly having been "summoned" by the now-insane Cavanaugh).

"The sky darkens with smoke," Monaco wrote, describing the ending. "The bay overflows with pustulous flotsam and jetsam — and worse — dreck. Garbage runs rampant in the streets. In a montage of 25 extraordinary scenes, pollution triumphs in the city as crowds run screaming in terror from the stench, the smoke, the horror of it all."

For all of this, the tone would have been crucial — and perhaps impossible to nail. Lee and Resnais envisioned a comic-book-like story with "a subtle tone of cinematic irony to be a commentary on the style as well as an example of it." Why style? Wrote Monaco: "'The Monster Maker' is a grand and exuberant compendium of all the cliches of the B movie which have thrilled and enthralled audiences for fifty years: science fiction, sentimental romance, horror, revenge, and cataclysm — it's all there. That more important perhaps, 'The Monster Maker' takes these conventions seriously at the same time as it parodies them. This is not camp, but something more serious."

And thus the American Spider-Man co-creator Lee and the French surrealist Resnais were setting the bar extremely high. Monaco opined that The Monster Maker would not have been a very commercial project, and added that "with a little bad luck, it could easily have been a disaster for Resnais."

A disaster, perhaps. But there's no way it would have been an uninteresting one.

Resnais did extensive location scouting in New York for the unrealized project. In his book, Monaco includes a handful of those photos, reprinted from Resnais' photography book, RepĂ©rages, which was published in 1974. Those black-and-white images are further reproduced here. The quality is poor for several reasons, including the fact that I couldn't open the book flat to get good photos. But I think they give a good idea of Resnais' vision and inspirations for the meta-commentary pollution monster movie that was never to be. 
1. Yes, I'm a film nerd for having this book. My favorite Resnais movie is Last Year at Marienbad, but his most interesting and challenging film that I've seen is the one he made immediately afterward, Muriel. Also, it my opinion that Resnais' 32-minute 1956 Holocaust documentary, Night and Fog, should be be required viewing for American 11th grade or 12th grade students (with proper context, forewarning and discussion beforehand). This is especially needed in this moment, when society's knowledge of history, 20th century history in particular, is threatened by undereducation and by the willful promotion of false or revisionist history that seeks to advance hate-based agendas. Night and Fog's length fits neatly into a single class period, and I think those young people who watch it will be far less inclined to subsequently take dangerous demagogues and denialists of true history seriously. 
2. Interestingly, while the idea for a Lovecraft documentary floundered, Resnais in 1977 made a fictional film about an aging writer titled Providence. Some scenes were filmed in Providence, Rhode Island, where Lovecraft lived most of his life. Providence also features Ellen Burstyn, who was of course in Friedkin's The Exorcist. I need to track this one down!

Sunday, January 28, 2024

A water-stained postcard memory and fiddling with technology

Autumn (left) and Osmond "Bounds" Portifoy with today's postcard.

Since I started this blog in 2010, I've struggled at times with the technology to get quality pictures into the posts. This is supposed to be an ephemera archive, after all, so I want to include images that are sharp and true. 

For many years, the majority of the images for Papergreat came via flatbed scanner. It could be a cumbersome process, especially for posts with many images. The worst part, though, wasn't that it was time-consuming. It was that our various scanners struggled to faithfully reproduce certain colors, especially blues and purples, as I recall. There was an extent to which I could counterbalance that in photo-editing software, but often I just had to live with the flawed result.

In recent years, I made a big switch, and almost all images have come from my iPhone photography. The combination of speed (compared to a scanner) and high-resolution image was enough for me to make the switch. The downsides are that I need to be mindful of the lighting conditions, and it's harder to keep images from being skewed, depending on the angle at which I'm holding the camera. (Another upside, though, is that it has allowed for a lot more photos that include cats.)

I've been itching to try a scanner again, because it's better than an iPhone for things like postcards, old photographs and book covers that have a lot of reflectivity. So I got a CanonScan LiDE 300, which plugs right into my laptop.  

For the first test, I gave it a challenge. When we were at Bookmans here in Arizona last autumn, Joan found an amazing postcard of the Motel Providence in Media, Pennsylvania. Besides having some minor sentimental value for my family history (more on that in a moment), the postcard is a water-stained work of art. Somewhere along the way, it got pressed up against the back of another postcard, and the pigments from that other card's stamps and cursive writing now appear on the front of the Motel Providence postcard. 

For most, I suppose, that would mean the damaged postcard should just be tossed. To me, though, it has been turned into a one-of-a-kind artwork. To get more of a sense of the aesthetic I'm talking about, this January 2018 post and its many related links are a good start. I love a mint vintage postcard as much as anyone, but damaged cards that have nonetheless survived the passing decades are sublime.

Alas, the scanner couldn't handle the colors of this postcard as well as I would have hoped. First, here's the front of the postcard from a photograph taken with my iPhone SE:
This is a faithful reproduction. That stamp (hey there, President Lincoln) and the handwriting are basically hot pink atop the glossy photograph.

Meanwhile, this is the image from the CanonScan LiDE 300, and this is after some minor tweaks and a boost of a saturation levels in Pixlr:
Ugh. It could not handle the hot pink at all, turning it lighter and purple. I don't think this will be an issue with everything I use the scanner for, moving forward, but it's a bummer nonetheless and I'll have to be cognizant of comparing originals to the scanned images. (While I also adjust to wearing my new 1.25 reading glasses.)
Those reading glasses, plus my grandmother's trusty magnifying glass, show me the following text on the back of this postcard:
Area Code 215       Phone LO 6-6480
Media, Pennsylvania
Delaware County's newest and finest Air Conditioned economy motel. 10 miles West of Philadelphia — 4 miles North of Chester. Intersection of Rt. #1 & Rt. #252. 
No charge for "in room" Continental Breakfast — 6:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M.
Interiors by Strawbridge and Clothier.
Radio & T.V. by R.C.A. Air conditioning by G.E. Fire proof & sound proof construction. Architecturally designed and engineered by MEDIA REAL ESTATE COMPANY.
Color photography by Jay Layton Manning, Ardmore, Pa.
Our family of four would sometimes stay at Motel Providence in the late 1970s through mid 1980s when we came from Clayton or Montoursville or Largo and visited my grandmother and great-grandparents at their house on nearby Oak Crest Lane in Wallingford. It was a perfectly fine motel that served it purpose. There was a fast-food restaurant right next door — I can't remember whether it was McDonald's or Burger King — and we'd get breakfast and bring it back to the room. I guess it was better than the "continental breakfast."

Motel Providence is now called the Media Inn & Suites. The large MOTEL PROVIDENCE letters across the top of the roof are gone. But I guess they haven't been gone too long. A nine-minute film was shot there in 2014, and the letters were still atop the building: