Friday, March 20, 2009

Camera Obscura: Cars The Movies Love

The roads which cover America pulse with our lives and our lives become reflected as the cars we take to those roads. These aren't just roads - they are called 'national infrastructure', cars are economic giants, and wars are fought over oil and fuel around the world. Cars and driving are serious, really serious business.

I got lost on this road of thought when I decided to mention that you can see Monte Hellman's great 1971 movie "Two-Lane Blacktop" on Turner Classic Movies, 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning. The movie follows two guys - The Driver, played by then long-haired singer James Taylor, and The Mechanic, played by Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson - as they take their '55 Chevy tooling across America, hitting the drag racing circuits in town after town. Driving is their life. The Chevy is their home.

They hookup with a young female hitchhiker and then with another lost soul racing across the American landscape in a Pontiac GTO - actor Warren Oates in a must-see performance is the man known only as GTO. Each time he talks to someone, his entire life's background changes, and he gets obsessed with racing that Chevy. They criss-cross the country (including scenes shot in Athens, TN, and in Deals Gap, TN and in Memphis, plus Tucumcari, New Mexico, Needles, California, Flagstaff, Arizona - towns roll past like song lyrics.)

But the movie is no stack of simple action scenes - it's more a sad and moody song, the kind you hear in a barren roadside diner playing on a glowing Wurlitzer jukebox. Appropriate, really, since it was novelist Rudy Wurlitzer who wrote the script and with director Hellman created a unique American story set in that time when the love of roads and cars had started to peak, just a few years before the first Oil Crisis hit the nation. The hollowed-out rootless wandering of the 1960s is swallowing up all of the characters, too.

All the words of the characters are swallowed up too. There isn't much dialog in the movie. But you do hear the hum of the wheels on the highway and that incredible throaty roar of the Chevy (the sounds were lifted from this movie and used as the sound of Burt Reynolds' Trans Am in his "Smokey and the Bandit" movies). There were three Chevy's built by Richard Ruth for the movie, two went on the be used a short time later in "American Graffiti".

On one of many fan-pages of the movie found on the web, the car's description sounds like the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song and pure poetry for car fans:

"The 55 in Two-Lane had a big block 454 with aluminum heads, a tunnel ram intake and dual 4bbl Holley carbs. The transmission was a Munci M-22 "rockcrusher' feeding the power back to an Oldsmobile rear axle with 4.88-1 gears. Ruth fitted the car with a straight axle and four wheel disc brakes. The tilt front end was fiberglass as were the doors and deck lid.
Ruth also used plexiglass for the side windows that slid back to front instead of rolling up and down. The wheels were American mags 200-s, 15x6 front and 15x10 rear. They used M&H Racemaster drag slicks for racing and Firestone grand prix rain tires for street use. In the movie the car is said to run "well into the 12's. However later in the movie he beats "Mr. Bardahl". I heard the 55 was capable of low 10's at over 130mph! "

Back in 1971, there were no laws about seat belts, gasoline was 35 cents a gallon, road trips were something we inherited from the pioneer days. Today, it's hard to get much feel for the road in heated seat cushions, embedded DVD players and computer maps.

Something happens to you when you ride the road for long stretches. You're not a commuter anymore. It changes how you look, what you eat, and you start talking about "making good time".

Newer attempts at car movies don't cut it - the remake of "Gone Is 60 Seconds" went from lean independence to an over-glossed videogame. The upcoming release of the fourth "The Fast and the Furious" will see some theaters install new seats which are meant to shake and rattle their inhabitants like a thrill park ride.

A real car movie already knows how to make you feel the road. It's the journey itself.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

OpenPen: Online News For East Tennessee

I welcome OpenPen Media, a unique online alternative news source for East Tennessee, and happily add them to my blogroll and hope you start making them a reading habit too.

OpenPen media was created for residents of eastern Tennessee and it’s surrounding regions to address their concerns and voice their opinions as well as address the lack of relevant local news. Some opinions and commentary on the site may be passionate in their content and viewpoint. We encourage vigorous debate and conversation on all issues from all perspectives."

Stories posted there today include:

- Democratic Candidate for Governor Kim McMillan To Speak in ET (More On Her Campaign Here)

- Al Gore Offers Free Lecture At ETSU

- Rep. Phil Roe Hates Me, You and Everyone We Know

- Repeal The Patriot Act

- Vigil Marks 6th Anniversary of Iraq War

And this is just the start of this new citizen journalism project, and R. Neal at KnoxViews writes it is:

... the brain child of Janet Meek, former East Tennessee Coordinator for the Tennessee Democratic Party and founder of the independent Democratic Resource Center in Johnson City.

Janet has worked tirelessly for progressive government and politics for years, and her latest venture is a new, non-partisan approach to citizen journalism and alternative online media."

I certainly like what I've been reading and celebrate their efforts!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bob Dylan Springs Eternal

It's such a fine Spring day here in East Tennessee. I'm a sure-fire lover of this season and today also brought about a renewal of an longtime friendship.

Thanks to a mention from the fine folks at KnoxBlab about a new Bob Dylan album on the way out, I realized I had not spent time listening to his last studio release, "Modern Times", even though it has become one of his best-selling releases. So as I was working and writing today, I let it whirl in the background.

His work has been a constant companion for me - I like his music very much, and yes that means his voice sounds just fine to me, your loss if you dislike it. As I was growing up (and I apparently seem to continue shuffling along the trail here too, aging jes' fine thankyouverymuch) and thru to this day itself, he's just always been here. He's created as astonishing a body of music as any American musician ever has. And he's stayed at it, working and noodling away at words and music as fame and awards rise and fall around him, just working at making music and touring and touring, season after season.

I decided for a post today that I'd just share a song from Modern Times which makes me smile for Spring and for old man Dylan and for myself too. I hope you take some time to enjoy this day however you will, and maybe this song will accompany our Spring.

Bob Dylan - Beyond The Horizon

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why Are Newspapers Failing?

The continuing failure of newspapers nationwide raises many questions, and a very random survey at the Kingsport Times News shows some clear indications at what the public sees as problems and solutions:

Times News Poll • All Polls
The Pew research Center says one-third of survey respondents say they'd miss reading their local newspaper if it stopped publishing. What do you think?
40% - I see no value in the local news report.
31% - Something would replace it.
29% - It would seriously damage civic life.

Total Votes: 803

For more tales of the demise the newspaper business see:

- Do Newspapers Matter?

- Why Newspapers Can't Be Saved But The News Can

- Seattle Post Shuts Print Down, Goes Web-Only

- The Secret Success of Ethnic Newspapers

UPDATE: One commenter below, offers a valuable viewpoint about print and digital formats.

Southern Living Requires Docile and Dim Population

"Cheap labor. Even more than race, it’s the thread that connects all of Southern history—from the ante-bellum South of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis to Tennessee’s Bob Corker, Alabama’s Richard Shelby and the other anti-union Southerners in today’s U.S. Senate."
"The idea of working people joining together to have a united voice across the table from management scares most Southern politicians to death. After all, they go to the same country clubs as management. ...

"The South today may be more racially enlightened than ever in its history. However, it is still a society in which the ruling class—the chambers of commerce that have taken over from yesterday’s plantation owners and textile barons—uses politics to maintain control over a vast, jobs-hungry workforce. After the oligarchy lost its war for slavery—the cheapest labor of all—it secured the next best thing in Jim Crow and the indentured servitude known as sharecropping and tenant farming. It still sees cheap, pliable, docile labor as the linchpin of the Southern economy."

The essay quoted above is from this story at Alternet, mentioned in posts at The Crone Speaks and KnoxViews.

Sen. Corker has earned the many criticisms this article heaps upon him - outrage at the Big Three automakers, obedience to Wall Street's calls for cash. East Tennessee certainly relies on cheap labor for the thousands of manufacturing jobs and those same businesses often use temp agencies to supply them while importing workers from out of state for high-skill jobs -- though that is not always the rule.

It is a deeply complex issue, which perhaps gets some glossing over in the Alternet piece. Still, since Republicans have dominated federal and state offices in this part of Tennessee, the status quo of low education among poorly paid workers - jobs earning much higher salaries in other locations - that status quo seems more like bedrock foundation. Some years back I pointed out this dire and thorny problem.

And likewise the fact remains that while many folks here idealize a sort of rugged individualism and brook no interference, time and again the voice of the individual and the needs of their collective good are far in the background behind the lobbying professionals who dictate the bills and laws which govern.

Perhaps it's that those who rule and those who serve both get something that allows each a perception of independence which is beyond question - but the reality is that Southern living comes at a high price.

UPDATE: See Mary Mancini's post at Liberadio(!): "And, really, if an employer doesn’t need the permission of their employees to join the Chamber of Commerce, than why should employees need the permission of their employer to join a union?"

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Monday Web-Walk

-- Is Glenn Beck saying mass murders like the one at Knoxville's Unitarian Church is justified?

-- The NSA wants control over American Internet says outgoing DHS Cyber-Security Chief.

-- Worst. Shakespearean. Hip-Hop. Ever. (And the one for Edgar Allan Poe is even worse.)

-- Pi are not square, Pi are round. Cornbread are square.

-- "So, here we are, forced to think about (Rep. Stacey) Campfield having sex."

-- Holi, The Spring Festival of Colors in India looks astonishing. Beautiful images via the Boston Globe.

I Got The News

Hello Internet, how was your weekend?

Mine was fine, thanks. I have been taking some enjoyment and wonder at how the national, regional and local news media machines of the last century are trying to figure out how to stay in business (see Clay Shirky's essay).

They say things like: The Internet is killing us off! Un-credentialed writers and photographers and videographers are slumming up the works!! America will die without us!! OMG! News is a business threatened by anyone with the skill to plunk words and images onto a web site!! Civilization is crumbling!!!!!!

I say: Easy there, Sparky. It's just your business that's folding up faster than a cheap cardboard table.

I've spent many years working in those traditional forms of news - print, radio, tv - and worked alongside a heap of very poorly paid and intelligent (sometimes) folk which seemed to bring only wealth and power to a very select few owners and power-brokers. Sometimes important stories broke out and shook up the status quo. Sometimes such tales were crushed to prevent a shake up. Many readers read or listened or viewed the tales told as Gospel. The smartest ones, however, relied on more useful axioms of doubt and critical examination, by probing into the tales being told, by talking to our friends and neighbors and seeking out the opinions and tales being told by others.

I've spent even more years simply working with words, just trying to communicate effectively. Here in America our 26 letters can be combined in ways which rock the world or land with an empty thunk in oblivion.

Here's something I've learned: Humans work mighty hard to create a narrative of design and meaning out of their own experiences. There seems a near primal need to construct a reasonable pattern out of what we see and hear or were told or weren't told, it's just the way our brains want to work. Even when we sleep, we experience sensations which are swirled into patterns of stories and meanings which we dimly recall upon waking, or perhaps the patterns are so intense we can't shake them loose for days and days.

So while a business - a paper or tv station or radio station - begins to land with that thunking sound, it is not a sign of the Apocalypse. Instead we are finding new ways to communicate with each other, about "news" and about our lives. Proof? Tell me, have you ever heard of anyone and I mean anyone taking a class or training seminar on how to text message someone else? Or did we just create the very tools and pieces of it as we were using it?

I do not really consider myself what has been termed a "blogger". I write.

And here in the year of our Lord 2009, more people than ever before in human history are writing and making images and creating and communicating with each other across the digital universe. Not everyone is accessing the Internet or using computers or hand-held digital communicators -- not yet. That may well take decades to take place if it ever does at all.

We don't have to rely on a a few hundred or a few thousand sources of news and information. We're dispensing with all that and news is still being reported and yes, lies and rumors are spread right along with it. Truth emerges under its own viability. Or it thunks as all lies and rumors do.

I have often written things which newspapers or other outlets then reported and I often have written about the things I've read or seen which were created by a newspaper, or a magazine essay, an online account, a song, an image and many other sources of information and communication.

Worries and fears about business will likely be with us always. News or journalism or writing or fact-checking or watch-dogging or whatever you wish to call the infinite narratives of our days is thriving and growing so fiercely it frightens those who no longer have the muscles of control they once had.

I got the news. You can get it too. We make it, ordinary folks who probe and ponder our world. We always have and we always will.