“An awful waste of space”: CONTACT at 25

The movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s one and only one novel, came out this month in 1997. Almost ten years ago I posted the following piece about the movie, a film that I’ve always liked and admired but not quite crossed over into loving. I’m not sure I totally agree anymore with what I write below, but thinking does shift and evolve, and I appreciate Contact more now than I used to; it remains one of the few major pop culture artifacts that endorses the Saganesque view that science should be our guiding philosophy as humans, and not spirituality. But I still think the movie hedges its bets too much, it drives its points home with too little subtlety (a fault often found in Robert Zemeckis films), and I think it undermines the feminist subplots by surrounding its main character with men without whose help and influence she would not succeed.

And yet…Contact is still a movie that says the right things about science and about the universe. It’s a movie that confirms that the proper response to this universe is curiosity and wonder, and my favorite moment is when Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is discussing the voyage into the Cosmos that is at the heart of the movie’s narrative and she describes the required quality as “a sense of adventure”.

(Oh, Contact‘s score, by Alan Silvestri, is really good–for all the film’s lack of subtlety, Silvestri brings the goods here. Here’s one cue, called “The Primer”, scoring a scene in which the secret of an alien transmission is revealed. This is really good stuff, excellent suspense music, and it shows why Silvestri ended up being the composer for the recent sequels to the original Cosmos series.)

Here is my old post:

As much as I love Carl Sagan, I have to admit that I never warmed to his one and only novel, a science-fiction first contact story he called Contact. I tried reading it a couple of times, and each time I only got about a hundred pages in before I stopped. I just don’t think that Sagan was really cut out for novel writing, no matter how great his gifts may have been for science writing. But in 1997, a movie adaptation of the book arrived in theaters, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConnaughey and directed by Robert Zemeckis. The movie was six months too late for Sagan to have seen it, alas.

I’ve had a somewhat uneasy relationship with Contact ever since it came out. On balance I like it a lot…but I don’t love it, and in truth, I never really have. I’ve never been entirely successful in putting my finger on what it is about Contact that vexes me, but after recently watching the film again on NetFlix, I think I have it: the movie is too unfocused. When the film is concentrated on telling its story and attending to that central story, it is a fine, fine piece of work. But too often I get the impression that Robert Zemeckis got distracted, often by something shiny, and there are way too many times in the movie that the story gets lost so we can follow something shiny.

Contact tells the story of Ellie Arroway, an astronomer whom we meet as a young child, operating her HAM radio under the guidance of her father. They have a wall map of the United States, on which she marks her radio contacts with push pins; after talking to someone in Pensacola, Dad comments that it’s her farthest contact yet. Ellie asks if a radio could talk to the Moon, or to Mars…or to her mother, who is apparently dead. Dad responds, “I don’t think they’ll ever make a radio that can reach that far.”

Grown-up Ellie (Jodie Foster) turns out to be an astronomer, as noted, who is using her research time at the Arecibo Radio Telescope to look for, as she says, “little green men”: she is dedicating her career and scientific energies to SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). This leads to her meeting a former priest (Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConnaughey), who despite being religious and spiritual where she is not, attracts her on a number of levels, and it also leads to run-ins with an older male scientist named David Drumlin (Tom Skeritt) who is snide and condescending to Ellie as he regards her chosen field of specialty as an utter waste of time. After a number of obstacles to her career – mostly owing to funding difficulties, as convincing people to part with money for something like SETI tends to be difficult – Ellie finally has a breakthrough when, while working at the Very Large Array in New Mexico, her radio telescopes detect an unmistakable alien signal. The rest of the film follows the implications of such a discovery.

Or, rather, the rest of the film should do that, and when it does, it’s incredibly effective and thought-provoking and loaded with the grand “sensawunda” of all the best science fiction. The problem with the movie is that it too often wanders into less interesting stuff, or its steps away from subtlety to drive its points home with a jackhammer, or it does things that forcibly eject me from the world of the film.

Taking the less interesting stuff first: Ellie Arroway is too often portrayed in the film as the feminine voice of reason in a crowd of over-bearing, pompous, or downright dim men. Science and engineering are male-dominated fields, and it’s a well-established fact that women in those fields tend to have a tougher going just to overcome gender biases. The problem with Contact‘s approach isn’t so much that it points this out, but that it’s about other things, and thus it can’t really delve too intelligently into those topics which really do deserve higher scrutiny. Thus we have Ellie being treated like an outsider on her own project, or Drumlin stepping up to claim ownership over a project he’s derided consistently up until the moment it proved fruitful. Ellie is constantly on the defensive in the movie, and I think it hurts the narrative because the film can’t just gear up and take us where it wants to go. Instead we have to keep talking about God.

And God is where subtlety just isn’t something that interests Robert Zemeckis. Contact is full of discussions of religion versus science, but the feeling is never that anything is really being debated; what happens is that opposite sides’ viewpoints are stated, and restated, and stated again. Ellie goes to a reception in Washington, where her first order of business upon approaching Palmer Joss is to immediately launch into a discussion on religion, without any preamble or preliminary; more than that, though, the script treats all such conversations – and many that aren’t on the topic of religion at all – as though Ellie has a sizable axe to grind, while everyone else (just about all of whom are male) is calm and collected in their disagreement. Coupling that with the several instances in the film where Ellie is betrayed by men – Drumlin’s taking of the credit, Joss’s posing of a question at the hearings when he knows that the answer is going to doom Ellie’s chances of being the one selected to go in ‘the machine’ – and the film seems to depict Ellie as someone who doesn’t so much achieve a lot but whom is given things, table-scrap like, by the men in her life. It’s an odd kind of feeling.

It also bothers me that the film ends right when it gets most interesting, and it feels to me like it takes the easy way out. To me, the most interesting thing is, What would human society be like once we know that we are not alone in this Universe? We may know next to nothing about who is out there, but surely knowing once and for all, without speculation, that there is someone or something living out there would be a staggering revelation for the human species. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t do much with this notion – in fact, it backs away from it. We get lots of intrigue involving the contents of the message that is received from space, and then the construction of the transport “machine”, and so on. And this is all very compelling and entertaining…but at the end, the film gives us the old “Did it really happen?” gambit, reducing a momentous scientific discovery to something that will appeal to some people and not to others. Not unlike, say, the belief in God.

(Again, I don’t know to what degree the film’s story tracks that of the novel.)

I always find that the film deflates in its last fifteen minutes or so, after Ellie returns from her journey only to learn that, so far as anyone here knows, she never went anywhere. This leads to a Congressional hearing (which really drives home the film’s theme of “one woman versus a whole bunch of mean men”), at the end of which one Representative says, “Are we supposed to take your story…on faith?” And yes, he really pauses and puts big emphasis on those last two words, just in case we missed the irony of a scientist committed to objective observation being forced to admit the necessity of faith. Again, subtle, this is not. The movie does try to have it both ways by showing two government folks discussion the fact that the machine’s video recorder recorded eighteen hours of static (had nothing happened at all, there would have been about two seconds’ worth). But this is to be kept secret, apparently. They might as well seal all this information in a crate and store it in the warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant.

And the movie ends, on this state of affairs. What happens now, though? Does some kind of new religion start to accrete around Ellie and her scientific beliefs? Does Ellie somehow become an evangelist for a new blossoming of a scientific worldview? Does her experience have any effect on the human tension between science and religion? We never get any suggestions or speculations. All we get is the rolling of the credits. Contact tells a good story, but it stops just as its important story is just beginning.

Finally, I just have to note that all the cameos in the movie annoy the crap out of me. This was when Robert Zemeckis had just discovered that he could put people into lots of interesting situations, digitally; remember, he’d had Forrest Gump consorting with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. So here we get loads of real-life CNN personalities, and even President Bill Clinton, with the film taking quotes from actual Clinton newscasts and editing them so that it sounds like he’s discussing the events of the movie. It’s incredibly distracting. Instead of being drawn further into the story, I find myself trying to think of what event Clinton was actually discussing in the speeches that were repurposed for this movie. Things like having Rob Lowe play a Christian conservative leader named “Richard Rank” are incredibly distracting, because of course it makes me think of Ralph Reed. Shoehorning in mention of the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult, which had happened just months before the movie came out, is another example. Zemeckis seems to want his movie to seem ‘real’ and relevant, but all this stuff has the exact opposite effect on me: it forces me to keep the story at arm’s length.

Ultimately, I want to love Contact, because of my love and admiration for Carl Sagan, for the subject matter of the story, and for the view of the Universe as a place of wonder and of science as humanity’s greatest achievement. And there really is a lot to love about Contact. But the movie spends so much time getting in its own way that I inevitably end up just admiring it a lot.


Share This Post

Posted in On Movies | Tagged | Comments Off on “An awful waste of space”: CONTACT at 25

Tone Poem Tuesday

Going to the Renaissance Faire* always reminds me, among other things, of the music of Camelot, so here is Robert Russell Bennett’s arrangement of that show’s fine tunes. I got to play this in college one year for our orchestra’s Pops concert, which is probably where my love of Lerner-and-Loewe began.

* Post forthcoming


Share This Post

Posted in music | Tagged | Comments Off on Tone Poem Tuesday

“Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today, I’m an amateur.” (David Warner, TIME AFTER TIME)

David Warner, 1941-2022

Actor David Warner has died.

Warner was a very prolific actor; bring up his filmography and you’ll be scrolling for quite a while. While he was usually not a lead, he was more than a “character actor”. Warner brought gravity, precision, and seriousness to every role he undertook. He brought an air of dignity to the table whether he played a villain or an ally or something in between. Warner appeared in genre films a lot; the first thing I ever saw him in was 1982’s TRON in which he had the dual role of the oily businessman Ed Dillinger in the ‘real’ world and the sadistic henchman program Sark in the ‘computer’ world. From then on I would run into Warner pretty frequently, as he was the kind of actor who was always working.

Warner showed up on Star Trek several times, first as a human in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and then as the doomed Klingon Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He would then be a Cardassian in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Chain of Command”, a particularly memorable turn in which his character, Gul Madred, tortures a captive Captain Picard, taunting him to break and admit that there are five spotlights shining down on him when in reality there are only four.

Oddly, despite being such a prevalent English actor, Warner never appeared in any Star Wars property, except for some voice work in a game that came out in 2000. I consider that a missed opportunity for Star Wars.

David Warner was like Christopher Lee in his ability to elevate whatever material he was in. His characters, whether villainous or virtuous, always had an air of dignity and consideration about them, and there was always a careful precision in his acting. He was Billy Zane’s security-henchman guy in Titanic, a really nasty character named Lovejoy; at the end of the scene where Jack saves Rose from her suicide attempt and then helps her cover up that she attempted suicide at all, Warner fixes Leonardo DiCaprio with a pleasant expression as he says “It’s curious how she slipped and fell so suddenly, and yet you had time to remove your jacket and your shoes.” And the pleasantness leaves his eyes entirely, even as he gives DiCaprio a tight, controlled smile. You can see Lovejoy’s lethal nature in that tiny moment that Warner pulls off. There’s no question this guy is going to be bad news before the end.

The first time I saw David Warner in anything was a thriller called Time After Time, in which Warner played an 1890s London physician who turns out to be none other than Jack the Ripper. He commits one more murder but now the police are onto him…when he learns that his good friend, author and naive utopian H.G. Wells, has created a time machine. I wrote about this movie several years ago when I was still writing for The Geekiverse, and I discovered earlier that that site has been taken down (The Geekiverse‘s owner has been retooling, refocusing, and ultimately rebranding the site, which is absolutely fine!). Luckily, via the Wayback Machine, I was able to grab the text of what I wrote back then. I offer it below as tribute to David Warner, a wonderful actor who will be missed but whose body of work will endure.

What if H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine out of direct experience with time travel? What if Wells actually built a time machine and used it to visit San Francisco in 1979? What if Wells came to 1979 chasing Jack the Ripper, who had also used Wells’s machine to flee certain capture in 1893? That’s the hook of the 1979 movie Time After Time, one of my favorite time travel stories of all…well, you know.

Time travel is one of speculative fiction’s warhorse tropes, and I very much doubt you can find a genre fan whose personal list of favorite stories doesn’t include at least one time travel tale, be it Back to the Future or Star Trek entries like “The City on the Edge of Forever” or ST IV: The Voyage Home or that weepiest of weepers, Somewhere in Time.

Time After Time opens in 1893, on a steamy gaslit street in London where we witness as Jack the Ripper (“My name is John, but my friends call me Jack….”) murders a prostitute.

Then we meet our hero, H.G. Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell), who is hosting a dinner party at which he unveils to his friends (including a physician named John Leslie Stevenson, played by David Warner) the time machine that he has built. Wells is planning to travel forward in time so he can witness what he assumes will be humanity’s Utopia, believing as he does that the dawn of the Socialist utopia is at hand.

The dinner party is cut short by a visit from Scotland Yard. It seems that “the Ripper has struck again,” after several years of inactivity, and he has done so quite nearby. Searching Wells’s home, the detectives find Dr. Stevenson’s medical bag containing the knife and the bloody gloves, revealing Wells’ own friend to be England’s most notorious murderer. Stevenson is not in the house, though, and Wells realizes that there is only one way Stevenson can have escaped: he has fled in the time machine to 1979. “I’ve turned that bloody maniac loose upon Utopia!” Wells says as he follows Stevenson into the future, where he discovers many things, including lunch at McDonald’s, that women have achieved a degree of professional mobility, and that the future is far from the Utopia he has envisioned.

When Wells confronts Stevenson in his hotel room, Stevenson shows Wells a television set and all the violent content available on it. Stevenson points out, to Wells’s horror, that their future is closer to his Utopia than Wells’s. “Ninety years ago I was a freak,” Stevenson says. “Today I’m an amateur…We don’t belong here? On the contrary, Herbert. I belong here, completely and utterly. I’m home.”

Luckily for the film, Time After Time doesn’t dwell much on this bit of social commentary, preferring to keeps its story moving, but it does make clear the viewpoint that violence is an eternal part of the human condition. Late in the film Wells says: “Every age is the same. It’s only love that makes any of them bearable.”

Love: that’s the other main part of Time After Time, because H.G. Wells also finds love while he is searching for the Ripper. He needs money and goes to convert some of his 1893 currency, where he meets banker Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen). They begin a romance in which Robbins is entranced by Wells’s quaint clothes and oddly out-of-touch prudishness. Wells keeps his secret as long as he can, but eventually he realizes that he has to come clean with her, and when he does he proves that he is telling the truth about having come from the past by using the time machine to take her four days into the future. This works…except that the newspaper they find, proving that they have indeed gone into the future again, has a headline story about the new Ripper’s latest murder: Amy herself. Wells must now stop Jack the Ripper entirely, and stop him from murdering the woman he loves.

Time After Time is a grand, old-fashioned entertainment, right from the very start when the film opens with the great old Warner Brothers fanfare that once opened films such as Casablanca. Director Nicholas Meyer, in his first feature film, keeps the story moving briskly along and lets his actors do the work. The “fish out of water” stuff, like Wells ordering at McDonalds and identifying himself to police as “Sherlock Holmes” (clearly never expecting a popular fictional character from his own day to endure for all time), works very well, and Meyer does not lean on that stuff too heavily at all, thus keeping the film from spinning off into pure comedy.

Best of all are the performances. McDowell depicts Wells’s wisdom and naivete, and it’s hardly a revelation that David Warner plays a very fine villain in his Jack the Ripper. Steenburgen’s Amy Robbins is smart and competent, clearly seeing through Wells but also being willing to go along with his weirdness for a while…until things get too weird, of course. By limiting the time travel to the future, Time After Time involves all the paradoxical time travel stuff like changing history and keeping parents from meeting and the like. Instead the film focuses on how the future invariably amazes and disappoints at the same time. The movie also holds up quite well, not being terribly dated at all (the period McDonald’s uniforms are a hoot, though).

Time After Time looks great, even after all these years. The machine itself is a great bit of Victorian steampunk, looking vaguely fishlike and studded with gems. Miklos Rozsa, one of the greatest composers of film music ever, turns in one of his last scores. Nicholas Meyer would make an even bigger mark in genre film three years later, with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and both McDowell and Warner would show up in Trek movies themselves (though not together). Looking for a great time travel story? Try Time After Time!

Share This Post

Posted in On Movies, Passages | Tagged , | Comments Off on “Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today, I’m an amateur.” (David Warner, TIME AFTER TIME)

And now…

…a feline being a doofus.

Have a great weekend, folks! I have a busy weekend planned so I’ll likely not be posting again until Monday. Cheerio!


Share This Post

Posted in On Cats and Cat Life | Tagged | 1 Comment

Something for Thursday

In 1980 Queen provided one of the best-known examples of a rock band providing significant amounts of music for a genre movie, the grand pulpy-sci-fi flick Flash Gordon. Several years later they did a similar task for an equally pulpy and campy epic fantasy film, 1986’s Highlander. Oddly, in terms of greater cultural visibility, Flash Gordon is probably better known than Highlander, despite the fact that Highlander actually spawned a franchise that may or may not still be going strong, where Flash went sequel-less and then the property has just kind of sat there, occasionally getting revisited but never in a big way. It’s weird how this stuff works.

Highlander has never been my favorite flick–it’s kind of thick and ponderous and its tone is, for me, wildly inconsistent (it would have benefitted greatly, I think, from the kind of commitment to camp that Flash undertook)–but its music, consisting of a score by Michael Kamen, is a grandly epic score full of sweeping melodies that are often better than the sequences they accompany. And then there are the songs by Queen, which aren’t quite as strongly central to the film as the ones for Flash; in the earlier film, the songs are part of, if not the main part, of the movie’s music in general. For Highlander the songs are more in the background. But they’re still good, because they’re by Queen. I don’t think Queen had it in them to do bad songs.

Here’s “Who Wants To Live Forever” by Queen, from Highlander, a movie about immortal combatants who can only dispatch each other by beheading, until only one remains to claim The Prize. (That’s about as much sense as it makes in the movie, I swear.)


Share This Post

Posted in music | Tagged | 1 Comment

For no reason other than it makes me laugh every time I watch it….


Share This Post

Posted in Random Linkage | Tagged | 1 Comment

Apollo at Fifty (a repost)


Sam Seaborn: There are a lot of hungry people in the world, Mal, and none of them are hungry ‘cause we went to the moon. None of them are colder and certainly none of them are dumber ‘cause we went to the moon.

Mallory O’Brian: And we went to the moon. Do we really have to go to Mars?

Sam Seaborn: Yes.

Mallory O’Brian: Why?

Sam Seaborn: ‘Cause it’s next. ‘Cause we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.

–from “Galileo Five”, season two of The West Wing, written by Aaron Sorkin

Anniversaries are a good thing, even if they’re leavened with the weight of years of thwarted expectations and deferred dreams, as the First Lunar Landing’s is: Why have we never gone back? Why are we stuck in low-Earth orbit? Was it all just politics and none of it the call of the stars?

But such anniversaries are a bit of a balm in times such as these, when humanity seems bound and determined to roll back on itself like some kind of distended, drunken serpent consuming its own tail in a weird and awful version of an ouroboros. We can look back on the Apollo missions as a reminder of the kinds of things humanity can do when the primary motive isn’t necessarily profit.

I was born in September 1971, which means that I have never lived in a world where the Moon was not a place where humans have gone. I hope that I live to see a day when the Moon is no longer the only place other than Earth that we’ve gone.


From Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan:

It’s a sultry night in July. You’ve fallen asleep in the armchair. Abruptly, you startle awake, disoriented. The television set is on, but not the sound. You strain to understand what you’re seeing. Two ghostly white figures in coveralls and helmets are softly dancing under a pitch-black sky. They make strange little skipping motions, which propel them upward amid barely perceptible clouds of dust. But something is wrong. They take too long to come down. Encumbered as they are, they seem to be flying — a little. You rub your eyes, but the dreamlike tableau persists.

Of all the events surrounding Apollo 11‘s landing on the Moon on July 20, 1969, my most vivid recollection is its unreal quality. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin shuffled along the gray, dusty lunar surface, the Earth looming large in their sky, while Michael Collins, now the Moon’s own moon, orbited above them in lonely vigil. Yes, it was an astonishing technical achievement and a triumph for the United States. Yes, as Armstrong said as he first alighted, this was a historic step for the human species. But if you turned off the byplay between Mission Control and the Sea of Tranquility, with its deliberately mundane and routine chatter, you could glimpse that we humans had entered the realm of myth and legend.

We knew the Moon from our earliest days. It was there when our ancestors descended from the trees into the savannahs, when we learned to walk upright, when we first devised stone tools, when we domesticated fire, when we invented agriculture and built cities and set out to subdue the Earth. Folklore and popular songs celebrate a mysterious connection between the Moon and love. The word “month” and the second day of the week are both named after the Moon. Its waxing and waning — from crescent to full to crescent to new — was widely understood as a celestial metaphor of death and rebirth. It was connected with the ovulation cycle of women, which has nearly the same period — as the word “menstruation” (Latin mensis = month, from the word “to measure”) reminds us. Those who sleep in moonlight go mad; the connection is preserved in the English word “lunatic”. In the old Persian story, a vizier renowned for his wisdom is asked which is more useful, the Sun or the Moon. “The Moon,” he answers, “because the Sun shines in daytime, when it’s light out anyway.” Especially when we lived out-of-doors, it was a major — if oddly tangible — presence in our lives.

The Moon was a metaphor for the unattainable: “You might as well ask for the Moon,” they used to say. Or “You can no more do that than fly to the Moon.” For most of our history, we had no idea what it was. A spirit? A god? A thing? It didn’t look like something big far away, but more like something small nearby — something the size of a plate, maybe, hanging in the sky a little above our heads. Ancient Greek philosophers debated the propositon “that the Moon is exactly as large as it looks” (betraying a hopeless confusion between linear and angular size). Walking on the Moon would somehow have seemed a screwball idea; it made more sense to imagine somehow climbing up into the sky on a ladder or on the back of a giant bird, grabbing the Moon, and bringing it down to Earth. Nobody ever succeeded, although there were myths aplenty about heroes who had tried.

Not until a few centuries ago did the idea of the Moon as a place, a quarter-million miles away, gain wide currency. And in that brief flicker of time, we’ve gone from the earliest steps in understanding the Moon’s nature to walking and joy-riding on its surface. We calculated how objects move in space; liquefied oxygen from the air; invented big rockets, telemetry, reliable electronics, inertial guidance, and much else. Then we sailed out into the sky.

The Moon is no longer unattainable. A dozen humans, all Americans, have made those odd bouncing motions they called “moonwalks” on the crunchy, cratered, ancient gray lava — beginning on that July day in 1969. But since 1972, no one from any nation has ventured back. Indeed, none of us has gone anywhere since the glory days of Apollo except into low Earth orbit — like a toddler who takes a few tentative steps outward and then, breathless, retreats to the safety of his mother’s skirts.

Once upon a time, we soared into the Solar System. For a few years. Then we hurried back. Why? What happened? What was Apollo really about?

For me, the most ironic token of that moment in history is the plaque signed by President Richard M. Nixon that Apollo 11 took to the Moon. It reads: “We came in peace for all mankind.” As the United States was dropping 7.5 megatons of conventional explosives on small nations in Southeast Asia, we congratulated ourselves on our humanity: We would harm no one on a lifeless rock. That plaque is there still, attached to the base of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, on the airless desolation of the Sea of Tranquility. If no one disturbs it, it will still be readable millions of years from now.

Six more missions followed Apollo 11, all but one of which successfully landed on the lunar surface. Apollo 17 was the first to carry a scientist. As soon as he got there, the program was canceled. The first scientist and the last human to land on the Moon were the same person. The program had already served its purpose that July night in 1969. The half-dozen subsequent missions were just momentum.

Apollo was not mainly about science. It was not even mainly about space. Apollo was about ideological confrontation and nuclear war — often described by such euphemisms as world “leadership” and national “prestige”. Nevertheless, good space science was done. We now know much more about the composition, age, and history of the Moon and the origin of the lunar landforms. We have made progress in understanding where the Moon came from. Some of us have used lunar cratering statistics to better understand the Earth at the time of the origin of life. But more important than any of this, Apollo provided an aegis, an umbrella under which brilliantly engineered robot spacecraft were dispatched throughout the Solar System, making that preliminary reconnaissance of dozens of worlds. The offspring of Apollo have now reached the planetary frontiers.

If not for Apollo — and, therefore, if not for the political purpose it served — I doubt whether the historic American expeditions of exploration and discovery throughout the Solar System would have occurred. The Mariners, Vikings, Pioneers, Voyagers, and Galileo are among the gifts of Apollo. Magellan and Cassini are more distant descendants. Something similar is true for the pioneering Soviet efforts in Solar System exploration, including the first soft landings of robot spacecraft — Luna 9, Mars 3, Venera 8 — on other worlds.

Apollo conveyed a confidence, energy, and breadth of vision that did capture the imagination of the world. That too was part of its purpose. It inspired an optimism about technology, an enthusiasm for the future. If we could fly to the Moon, as so many have asked, what else were we capable of? Even those who opposed the policies and actions of the United States — even those who thought the worst of us — acknowledged the genius and heroism of the Apollo program. With Apollo, the United States touched greatness.

When you pack your bags for a big trip, you never know what’s in store for you. The Apollo astronauts on their way to and from the Moon photographed their home planet. It was a natural thing to do, but it had consequences that few foresaw. For the first time, the inhabitants of Earth could see their world from above — the whole Earth, the Earth in color, the Earth as exquisite spinning white and blue ball set against the vast darkness of space. Those images helped awaken our slumbering planetary consciousness. They provide incontestable evidence that we all share the same vulnerable planet. They remind us of what is important and what is not. They were the harbingers of Voyager‘s pale blue dot.

We may have found that perspective just in time, just as our technology threatens the habitability of our world. Whatever the reason we first mustered the Apollo program, however mired it was in Cold War nationalism and the instruments of death, the inescapable recognition of the unity and fragility of the Earth is its clear and luminous dividend, the unexpected final gift of Apollo. What began in deadly competition has helped us to see that global cooperation is the essential precondition for our survival.

Travel is broadening.

It’s time to hit the road again.

Someday we’ll look up with wonder again. Someday we’ll go. I firmly believe that.


Footage of Walter Cronkite’s live broadcast of the lunar landing. Note his happy amazement at what he gets to report, at the 1:58 mark. He takes off his glasses, shakes his head, and smiles at the person next to him. I can’t help contrasting that with another moment when, while reporting on air, he had to remove his glasses and shake his head with disbelief, less than six years prior to this moment.

And I know it’s not the right mission, but for the movie Apollo 13, James Horner managed to really catch some of the unbridled optimism of the entire Apollo era.

Seriously, humans: when are we going back, and when are we going farther?


Share This Post

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Tone Poem Tuesday

Film music today! It suddenly occurred to me the other day that I haven’t heard anything by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek in a long time, so I gave a bit of his music another listen. My introduction to him was the gentle lyricism of his score to Finding Neverland, a wonderful movie you don’t hear much about anymore. Kaczmarek won the Best Score Oscar for this score, and he won it the year after The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won that honor, so in two years you had polar opposites winning the Oscar: a gigantic epic score of enormous complexity and orchestral grandiosity, and a quiet chamber work of delicate intimacy.

Finding Neverland tells a fantasized version of the story of J.M. Barrie and his creation of Peter Pan. The film abounds with dream-like sequences and flights of imagination, and these passages have a gossamer quality that is well served by Kaczmarek’s orchestral clarity. I love this score and hearing it again after a number of years was a delight. It’s always a pleasure to return to favorite works we’ve not visited in a long time, isn’t it?

I looked for a suite from this score, but the few that I found don’t feature the passages that I love most, so I decided to simply go with this: the entire score album presented at once. Plenty of tone poems are an hour long, so why not?

Here is Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s score to Finding Neverland. If you can, listen to this someplace where you think there might be some magic lurking in the corners.


Share This Post

Posted in music | Tagged , | Comments Off on Tone Poem Tuesday

It’s what’s for dinner!


I love breakfast sandwiches. Whoever first put eggs and meat and cheese on some kind of bread should be awarded a Nobel Prize.

In fact, there should be a Nobel Prize for food. But that’s a thought for another time.

Tonight was Breakfast Sandwich for Dinner Night, which happens pretty frequently at Casa Jaquandor because we love them and we always have stuff on hand to make them. What’s nice about breakfast sandwiches is the variability: they’re not unlike burgers in that regard. About the only thing you have to have is bread, egg, and cheese. Anything else is fair game: extra protein, grilled veggies, more cheese, hot sauce, other condiments.

You can vary the cheese, obviously–smoked Gouda makes a nifty flavor change, and I’m a firm believer that you should make as much room in your life for different varieties of cheese as you can. Using brie as a spreading cheese on sandwiches? That’s great stuff!

I suppose you could even use different eggs from different birds, though I’ve never gone that far. The bread is the biggest option for changing things up. A good hearty bun is great, and biscuits are classic. Good old bread is great, too…but don’t stop there! Making waffles? Make a couple extra, cut them into segments, and use the waffles as the casing for your breakfast sandwich. The sky is the limit, folks.

And if you’re wondering what’s on the sandwich pictured at the top of this post? From bottom to top: Provolone*, a sausage patty**, egg***, Canadian ham****, and hot pepper jelly*****! Mine is on white bread; The Wife’s was on gluten-free bread.

*Never put a protein that has a lot of internal juices directly on the bottom bread. A fatty layer is best. In this case, cheese. On a burger, the bottom bun is where I spread mayo.

**We buy our breakfast sausage from Hanzlian’s, a local sausage maker whose products we love.

***Only one egg this time, what with all the other proteins.

****I’m not sure if there’s a difference between “Canadian ham”, as this is packaged, and “Canadian bacon”. Canadian bacon is good stuff. As a kid I used to get pouty when my parents would order it on pizza, which was an incorrect position to take. Get over it, Young Me!

*****Hot pepper jelly is my new “secret weapon” condiment. I adore the stuff, and it probably deserves a post of its own.

Share This Post

Posted in On Food and Cooking | Tagged | 1 Comment

Now we need brands called “Equality!” and “Fraternity!”

I haven’t written about The World’s Greatest Overalls Collection* lately, so…let’s talk overalls. Specifically, the Liberty brand.

Liberty is a common brand that’s been around forever, but I’ve never owned a pair, until now. I have to admit that I’ve avoided the brand, because of their association with a teevee show.

Billy Carter appeared on Hee Haw, for some reason.

Imagine doing the whole 80s-poof thing with your hair and then having to put on a straw hat to stand and tell bad jokes in a fake indoor cornfield!

I have nothing against Hee Haw, as corny a show as it was–and let’s be honest, in the annals of corny earnest teevee, Hee Haw is way up there. There’s so much corn in that show that it could be squeezed for oil. Imagine The Waltons or Little House at their corniest, double the corn, and you’ve got Hee Haw.

Put simply, I’m acutely aware that at times I run the risk of looking like a backlot cast extra from Hee Haw, and I didn’t want to underline that by wearing the literal brand of overalls most associated with the show!

More recently, though, I’ve concluded that maybe I’m overthinking it a bit. I mean, how much cultural cachet does Hee Haw even have, at this point? No new episodes have been made in almost 30 years (it was finally canceled in 1993), and today it exists on cable channels and you can find episodes on YouTube. And heck, it’s not as if people would have really been paying attention even in the show’s peak of popularity as to the brand of overalls being rocked by the cast!

(Though I may be wrong on that particular point, because these things exist out there in the world:

That’s…a bit too on-point for me. The 70s were apparently a time for occasional overalls in various novelty prints….)

I must admit, too, that Hee Haw‘s status as a teevee staple in my household when I was “but a wee bairn!” is a likely influence in my lifelong sartorial tastes…and that probably wasn’t even its only influence on me:

Johnny Cash and Archie Campbell, both in Liberty overalls. Campbell’s face is obscured by a pie.

Liberty is still going strong as a company, and they maintain a nifty presence on social media. In recent years they’ve added a women’s line of overalls, of which I am jealous because they come in some nifty colors, particularly this “Frosted Sage” color:

Image from Liberty Brand’s Facebook page. I’m not sure what that gizmo is she’s holding…maybe it’s the smoke thing beekeepers use? Hmmmm….

I actually love that color, and if the Liberty folks made those available for men, I might very well snap up a pair.

I ended up not buying a new pair directly; my general taste now in overalls is for vintage, so that’s where I went. Also, I’ve read some reviews of the current manufacture that the new buckles Liberty is using tend to break,  I also didn’t want blue denim; Hickory stripe is one of my favorite things, and sticking with my original hang-up, you didn’t see Hickory stripes much on Hee Haw. So, a couple of weeks of lurking around eBay auctions later, I ended up with this nifty pair!

It’s July and WAY too hot for double-denim; these last two were just to see how they look with the denim shirt, since Autumn will be here before we know it!

What differentiates Liberty overalls from others is the styling of the bib pocket. It’s a triple pocket, believe it or not: the main one has a zipper enclosure, and then there’s a second, smaller pocket with a flap enclosure that snaps. There is also the standard hidden pocket watch pocket (the “button” hole on the top of a bib is for a pocket-watch fob), and the slots for pencils. (I never use these, but the stitching adds nice highlights.)

In addition to the buckles being different on the vintage pair, there are also a few key difference in the way the fabric is laid out. On the vintage pair I got, the band across the top of the bib, the top of the bib pocket just below the zipper, and the flap enclosure are cut so the Hickory stripe pattern runs horizontal, which to my eye creates a neat contrast. The newer design has all the Hickory striping set vertical, which is still neat-looking but…not as neat as it used to be.

Image from the Liberty Overalls website. Note the differences in the bib pocket between this new pair and my vintage pair.

A few detail shots here, because Liberty uses green highlights to nifty effect, with the bib label, the fabric setting the zipper, and even the enameled inlay in the button engraving:

Apparently Liberty actually carries a patent for the design of their bib pocket. I suppose that makes sense, but I’d never thought about that before. There are other overalls on the market with a similar, but obviously not identical, set-up with the bib pockets.

As for the fit and comfort? These are terrific, to the point that I’m regretting avoiding Liberty overalls for so long. I really like the way they look and feel when I’m wearing them, and as long as the forecast isn’t absurdly hot, I’m hoping to wear them to the Sterling Renaissance Festival when The Daughter and I attend next weekend. Here’s hoping!

*My overalls collection is now officially The World’s Greatest Overalls Collection. I have dubbed it thus.

Share This Post

Posted in On Bib Overalls | Tagged , | 1 Comment