Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Night the Earth Stood Still

In December of 1999 the editor at, Richard Foster, asked me to do something on the much-in-the-news Y2K scare. After we talked about it for a few minutes, he was happy to let me play around with a satirical approach. The gig had me filing the story a few days before New Year’s Day, to be published on January 3rd.

This is what I came up with 15 years ago:
The Night the Earth Stood Still
F. T. Rea
Monday, January 03, 2000

To Whom It May Concern: Greetings from the waning hours of 1999 in Richmond, Virginia, USA. And, in case it matters, on Earth.

Sitting at a table outside of Puddn'Heads Coffee House on an Indian Summer morning in November, I read a Y2K paranoia article with smug satisfaction as I consumed my daily dose of black coffee.

When I noticed a woman walk by with a mischievous Jack Russell Terrier at her side, I paused to think - who actually believed that anything significant was going to happen just because another page of the Christian calendar was about to be removed and tossed into the cosmic trash bin of time?

The woman looked a bit like Patricia Neal, which brought to mind "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the 1951 sci-fi classic that anticipated a modern society's panic from the sudden loss of all electricity.

Alas, that was only a few weeks ago. A few weeks ago, when I felt so unconcerned about Y2K bugs.

Now my nonchalance about this Y2K business has evolved into something else. Tonight, sitting at my keyboard on Dec. 16, I've started to get spooked by contemplating what's actually going to go down when zillions of pulsing gizmos sense that we have crossed the border between 1999 and 2000.

While I am anything but knowledgeable about matters pertaining to computers and the Internet, the fact is I use them both all the time. Frankly, I don't like to think about a world without word processing and e-mail.

At this point, I don't even know whether my computer will be of any use to me once we cross the great divide. I've been told on some good authority, there is a chance my old 486 may just seize up.

Of course that's a practical fear. Being a writer, I'm naturally concerned about my livelihood.

What is this I'm reading? You ask.

It's days after Y2K. We all know by now that (pick one) a) the Earth has been reduced to a still-glowing fireball; or b) it was all a big bore and we'll never fall victim to mass-hysteria again.

Well, reader, you're one up on me. The real problem looming as I type these words is that I have no idea that modern civilization isn't going to melt down over this splendidly ironic glitch in the system. I'm still weeks behind you, still left to wonder if the lights really will go out at midnight, Jan. 1, 2000. Still left to wonder if it's possible that our whole deal could go down the drain.

So think of this piece as a quaint time capsule beamed into the future - January, 2000.

Despite my Y2K blues, however, I believe that this article will almost certainly appear online as scheduled. I fully expect that you are sitting in front of your monitor reading this on

Then the laugh will be on all the people who admitted they were preparing for all manner of catastrophe. And, I suppose to some extent that will mean me. Fine. I'll be laughing then too.

I hope.

Nonetheless as I sit here, sipping on a bitter Pale Ale, I have no trouble imagining that roving bands of thugs could be out the first night without electricity. Looters could come out of the woodwork. If our toilets won't flush, our phones don't work, and all forms of mass communication are kaput, people could wig out big time.

Then, anything from the familiar post-apocalyptic menu could happen. Yes, I admit it - I'm getting a little worried.

In fact, I'm not at all sure when, or even if, anyone is actually going to read this. It has already occurred to me that maybe the only real point to my writing these paragraphs is to keep my squirmy consciousness occupied.

For that matter, every time a wordsmith plies his trade there is some leap of faith involved: Yes, it will be published. And yes, someone will read it.

Fetching yet another perfectly chilled ale, it just struck me that, for all I know, the entire power grid has gone down hard by the time you're supposed to be reading this.

And you, my dear reader, you could be someone who has stumbled across this material decades into the future. You could be an archeologist studying the artifacts of what remains of civilization circa 1999.

Or, perhaps you are reading this less than a month into the new millennium.

You are huddled in a icy bunker. Your generator-powered PC's monitor is providing the only light for you to pry open the precious can of beans you found in a pile of rubble.

And, with good reason you are reading this little essay with one eye peeled on the only doorway. Your revolver, as always, is at your side. You still have three bullets left.

You could even be the last human being alive. On the other hand, maybe you are not human at all. You could be from ...

Maybe everything is still, frozen timelessly in place.

OK, calm down.

If that is the case, there still could be one last chance. I know it sounds silly, but try saying the following phrase aloud: "Klaatu Barada Nikto."*

How could it hurt?

"Klaatu Barada Nikto!"

From 1999, this is F. T. Rea, over and out ...
-- 30 --
Note: *The key line from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" that commanded the all-powerful robot Gort to switch the world's machines back on.

A Lucky Break

The 1981-82 Biograph Naturals

Each year the NCAA’s men’s basketball tournament is a blessing during the month of March. It helps get basketball junkies, like me, through those last tedious days of winter.

Of course, to be a junkie in full bloom one must still play the game. Since I quit playing basketball in 1994, I suppose I’ve been a junkie in recovery. Yes, I’ll always miss the way a perfectly-released jump shot felt as it left my fingertips. Nothing has replaced the satisfaction that came from stealing the ball from an opponent, just as he stumbled over his hubris.

The years I spent covering college basketball, as a writer, helped to soothe my basketball jones. Since the improvisational aspect of basketball has always appealed to me, from my seat on press row my inclination was to pay particular attention to players who had a special knack for seizing the moment.

While basketball is in some ways a finesse game, there are brutal truths to be reckoned with. Although I’ve heard people claim that we can’t remember pain, I’ve not completely forgotten what it felt like to dislocate my right ankle on the afternoon of April 20, 1985; I was undercut finishing a one-on-five fast break lay-up. I'd love to say the ball went in the basket, but I don't remember that part.

What I do remember is flopping around on the hardwood, uncontrollably, like a fish out of water for a minute or so. Take it from me, dear reader, popping your foot off the end of your leg hurts way too much to forget -- think James Caan in “Misery” (1990).

Three years before that injury, my then-34-year-old nose was broken in the course of a basketball game. In that time, the Biograph Theatre, which I managed, had a team in a league called the Central Basketball Alliance. Other teams were sponsored by the Track, Soble’s, Hababa’s, the Jade Elephant, etc. Personnel-wise, it was an off-shoot of the Fan District Softball League, with some of the same characters ... and, I do mean characters.

The morning after my nose was bashed in by an opponent’s upwardly thrust elbow, while I was coming down from a failed attempt at snatching a rebound, I went to Stuart Circle Hospital for treatment.

My nose wasn’t just broken, it had been split open at the bridge in three or four directions. The emergency room doc used Super Glue and a butterfly clamp to put it all back together. This was before such glue had been approved for use in this country, so he asked me not to tell anyone what he had done; I hope the statute of limitations has run out.

Then, while I was waiting around in the lobby to sign some papers, my grandmother -- Emily “Villa” Collins Owen -- was wheeled by, stretched out on a hospital bed. As I grew up in her home and was still very close to her, it had the same shock effect as accidentally seeing one’s parent in such an abrupt context.

We spoke briefly. She said she was feeling a little weak from a cold and had decided to spend the night in the hospital. She lived just a few blocks away. Pretending to ignore my gripping sense of panic, I calmly assured Nana (pronounced Ny-nuh) I’d be back during visiting hours, to see how she was doing.

That evening I took my then-12-year-old daughter, Katey, with me to see Nana. The doctor came in her room and told us she’d be fine with a good night’s rest. Katey and I spent a half-hour making our 83-year-old Nana laugh as best she could … feeling a little weak. Six decades before she had trained to be a nurse at that same hospital, which has now been converted into condos.

Nana died later that night; it was in the wee hours of March 5, 1982. Had luck not interposed a fate-changing elbow to my beak, Katey and I probably wouldn’t have had that last visit with her. Which means I have to say the palooka who elbowed me in that basketball game did me a favor. Perhaps in more ways than one.

In order to keep playing in the Biograph’s games in that season, I needed to protect my nose while it healed. So, I got one of those protective aluminum nose-guards I’d seen players wear. It was a primitive version of the clear plastic masks in use today.

As a kid, I saw NBA great Jerry West wearing such a broken-nose-protector when he was playing his college ball at West Virginia. It impressed the 12-year-old version of me to no end; I marveled at how tough and focused West was.

Wearing what was to me a Jerry West mask, I played the rest of the CBA season -- maybe five more games. Now I believe that period was about the best basketball I ever played. Not wanting another whack to the nose made me a little more careful.

The team didn’t lose another game that year; the Biograph Naturals won the league’s championship. It has taken the passing of time for me to realize that in testing my nerve, in a fashion after the way West tested his, I had been living out a dream.

It seems some lucky breaks can only be detected in the rear-view mirror.

-- 30 --

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Napoleon in Manhattan

Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow in 1967
A chat about old cinemas with a master projection booth technician I met last year brought to mind a special movie-watching experience of mine. Later, I laughed to myself about the related eye-pain memory it had dusted off.

The conversation was with Chapin Cutler. He told me he had worked in the booth at the old Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge in his youth. In my early days as manager at the Biograph I had a few telephone conversations with that famous movie theater’s manager (I don‘t recall his name). Occasionally I talked with my counterparts at repertory cinemas/art houses in other cities about shipping prints back and forth, etc. The Orson Welles was known as a trend-setter.

Cutler also said he was working in the booth at Radio City Music Hall when I saw Abel Gance‘s “Napoleon” on October 24, 1981. He had supervised the installation of the synchronized three-projector system it took to present Gance’s restored 1927 masterpiece in a fashion that was faithful to what Gance had called “polyvision,” which entailed split screen images and other effects, including some color.

The restoration of the film was a great story, itself. It had been a 20-year project supervised by film historian Kevin Brownlow. Then the film, which had been released over the years at various lengths -- with versions that ran over five hours and some than ran under two -- was edited into to a four-hour version by Francis Ford Coppola, whose company, American Zoetrope, released it.

Just as the French filmmaker had originally envisioned, a live orchestra accompanied the silent film. It played a new score that had been written by Carmine Coppola, father of Francis Ford Coppola. The power the music added to the overall experience would be difficult to overstate.

Throughout the 1920s Abel Gance had been seen as a great innovator, even a genius. Then came the mammoth production, “Napoleon,” and its abysmal failure at the box office. It cost a theater a lot of money to install all the equipment it took to present it properly, with three projectors working in unison. So its first run didn’t go well. Talkies soon came along and silent films, no matter how avant-garde, were shelved.

Although he kept working on film-making projects, Gance sometimes spiraled into dark periods of despair. There was a point when he was said to have burned some of the footage from his original cut of “Napoleon.” Who knows what its true running time ought to be? I’ve read accounts that suggest Gance wanted it to run nine hours. And, he wanted to make sequels.

Eventually, Gance became somewhat obsessed with re-editing “Napoleon,” perpetually trying to transform some version of it into an important film that could be watched and appreciated by a wide audience. Some observers must have seen him as a washed up crackpot and anything but a good risk.

To get to Manhattan I drove to DeeCee and took the train to New York. During the Metroliner trip from Union Station to Penn Station I read several Charles Bukowski stories from a paperback edition of “Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness.” It had been purchased at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco eight months earlier that year, but I hadn‘t read much of it since the airplane trip home.

Reading several of Bukowski’s tight, briefly-told tales back-to-back on a fast-moving train really knocked me out. The feeling I had about the story called “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town,” is still easy to conjure up. To top it off, the whole trip was part of a business project -- I was traveling on other people’s money!

My Biograph bosses in Georgetown wanted me to assess the commercial potential for “Napoleon” for smaller markets in the mid-Atlantic region, because they were considering a bold move to become a sub-distributor of the film.

Then, bad luck flung a cinder into my eye during my walk to the theater. When the movie started I couldn’t watch it because I couldn’t get the damn thing out of my eye. It felt like a sharp-edged boulder. Since my mission was to WATCH the movie I had to do something, fast, so I went out to the lobby.

Corny as it sounds I asked the first Radio City Music Hall employee I encountered if there was a doctor in the house.

The answer was, “Yes.”

Hey this was Manhattan. Of course there was a doctor on duty to take care of medical emergencies and yes, to flush blinding cinders out of the patrons’ eyes; although the cinder had packed quite a punch, the thing actually weighed less than a pound.

The movie was spectacular. It was overwhelming. I returned to Richmond more than a little enthusiastic about the possibility of being associated with screening the movie at the Mosque in Richmond and in other large theaters in the region.

Unfortunately, the notion of playing Gance’s greatest film in cities all over the country, accompanied by live orchestras, withered and died. When it went into general release the sound was put on the film in a conventional way. Cinemascope was used to show the triptych effect.

So the deal my bosses had in mind never materialized. Still, the new four-hour version of “Napoleon” did run at the Biograph in February of 1983, to mark the theater’s 11th anniversary. It was still impressive, but not at all what it had been like at my first viewing. At least I got to see the part I had missed before.

Abel Gance died at the age of 92. He had lived long enough to see his reputation as a great filmmaker totally rehabilitated. His death came just three weeks after I saw “Napoleon.” Once again, critics were calling him a genius. Which, to me, represents a happy ending to this meandering story.   

This story is part of a series of stories at Biograph Times
All rights are reserved. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Warren Has Drawn a Line

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is not only a bona fide liberal and a star on the rise, she’s been playing her cards extremely well lately. She’s picked the cause she was born to champion. She’s picked the right time to draw a line on an issue that voters are likely to remember. 

On top of that Warren has been smart enough to bat away all attempts to make her current outspokenness about a particular issue instead about running for president in 2016. This is hardly the best time for Warren to begin striking the limiting pose of a presidential hopeful. (She doesn’t need to.) This way, right now, she owns the Wall Street issue. For Warren to suddenly pivot into a fundraiser mode would be a huge mistake. The line Warren has drawn is clear -- which side are you on?

If Warren eventually does become a candidate for the Democratic nomination, it should happen within the right context. She would be best served by being a late entry, drafted by a nationwide movement. Some aspects of that movement should probably be independent of the Democratic Party.

In other words -- portable. It would be fueled by a burgeoning liberal populism -- get-tough-with-Wall Street and anti-war -- and frustration with the so-called “inevitability” of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. The movement would depend more on social media than establishment media.

Maybe something like that will play out next year. Who knows when Clinton will make her announcement? Maybe other candidates will emerge that will change the dynamics. Next summer we'll have seen what the Republican majority in both houses of Congress will have wrought.

But for right now, with the Senate poised to vote, I’m delighted to see Warren focused on an issue in a way that has the potential to make proper regulation of Wall Street a populist cause modern Democrats will embrace more enthusiastically.

Update (8 p.m.): Warren on the floor of the Senate: "Enough is enough!" 

-- Image from Facebook

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Head-on-a-Pole Solution

OK, poisoning a schizophrenic in Texas, by way of lethal injection, might satisfy that particular state’s need to deal out old world punishment to the apparently guilty. And, executing a black marketeer in New York, by way of a chokehold, might prompt resisters of arrest to consider being more submissive. Still, as temporarily useful, or perhaps even entertaining, as those executions by the authorities might appear to be, no big problems are addressed in a way that offers any solutions.

However, if I could show you how to solve some of the most daunting problems we face today -- without costing the taxpayers a cent! -- wouldn't you be interested in hearing about it?

Of course you would. My plan would call for just one public execution a year. Its purpose would be to cure diseases, educate the poor, prevent wars, while erasing America's red ink problem. To do all that just one person would be put to death by the federal government each year. Although I'm ordinarily opposed to capital punishment, here's how it would work:

First we would make a list of all the American billionaires. Their names would then be put on a ballot. The ballots and ballot boxes would be put in convenience stores all over the country. The same ballots would be available online, as would virtual ballot boxes. Each citizen, 18 or older, would get to vote for the billionaire they see as the absolute worst super wealthy citizen in the USA.

All year long, we'd all be eligible to vote once a month. The billionaire who gets the most votes for being the most hated billionaire of the lot would be arrested by a SWAT team and executed by guillotine on last second of Dec. 31st.

Naturally, America's cities would bid to stage the execution, like the Olympics, with the money going into the Social Security trust fund. The execution and the mammoth party that would surround it would be carried live on television. Big budget commercials would bring in more dough.

Afterward, the billionaire's head will be put on a tall pole for all to see, where it would stay for one year. Then, for the next new year the new head would go up. Out of respect for the dead, the old head would be turned over to the billionaire's family after its year on a pole is over.

Meanwhile, the rest of the billionaires everywhere would take note, no doubt. They would have a couple of choices to prevent their own head from being selected to be the next to sit atop the people's pole:
  • Turn enough money over to the federal government to escape the list of billionaires. That money could go to public education and building a fast train national railway system.
  • If they want to remain a billionaire, then they need to use their money to do good works and curry favor with voters, especially those who hang around convenience stores or tend to stay online all day.
So, if you are a billionaire, let’s say you’ve got a cool $50 billion, or so. Then you could choose to give away $49.1 billion to get off the hook. Or, you could take a chance on spending a few billion on curing cancer, or AIDS. Or, you could throw some large money at feeding orphans, or on bringing peace to the Mideast. Maybe you’d pick a particular line of work, say all the musicians or artists in a state, and pay their rent for one year.

Busy billionaires would naturally buy lots of ads in magazines and newspapers, to promote what good deeds they’re doing, in order to increase their chances of keeping their heads on their respective shoulders. So, this deal could save our favorite inky wretches from extinction, too.

Accordingly, crime rates would drop. The research for new green-friendly technologies would be fully funded. Better recreational drugs with no hangovers ought to be developed. Every kid who wants a new puppy would get one. And, publishers would have enough money to pay freelance writers a decent fee for their work.

Each year would end with an execution of just one richly deserving person. Each year would start out with a visible symbol atop that special pole, showing everyone why we should be good to one another.

Monday, December 01, 2014

A Tradition Rather Bereft of Honor

While children stretch their faculties to develop their mindsets toward generosity and the appreciation of fair play, it’s also a good idea to encourage them to develop self-control. Self-control greases the wheels of civility, especially when one’s reserves of generosity and honesty might be running low. It also helps to keep the peace, all around.

Likewise, self-control is a trait that helps grown-ups avoid trouble, sometimes. Peace is good.

Beyond self-control, self-regulation is another thing, altogether. Self-regulation is mostly an oxymoron. And, the entities that demand self-regulation the most -- banks, energy companies, police forces, maybe universities, too -- continue to flinch noticeably at every mention of increased scrutiny of their ways of operating.

Hey, I might want to believe chemical companies in pursuit of the almighty dollar aren’t dumping poison into the James River, but given Virginia's history in such matters, I need to know it. Who, other than diehard government-haters, doesn’t want regular testing of the people’s water?

Furthermore, the archaic notion that self-regulating colleges in Virginia ought not to have to report rapes to the police is about as wrongheaded as it gets. Unfortunately, it's a notion recently validated and supported by Virginia lawmakers. 
There, after studying the issue, [the General Assembly] decided not to require colleges to report deaths and rapes to the locality.
Click here to read, “U.Va. Rolling Stone Article Shines New Light on an Old Problem,” by Cheylen Davis.

Although I might like to believe that a code of conduct handed down from one generation to the next promotes a classic sense of honor that is a boon to society, I'm bewildered by U.Va.'s apparent sense of what constitutes "honor" in 2014.