Humbugs, MSG, and an ambitious film list for 2015.

The more I read, the more I realize how little I know. Philosophy, history, the arts, sciences, you name it. It’s a humbling experience, losing myself in the pages of great writers. I put down my book about every other paragraph to jot down a sentence that absolutely, positively, cannot, must not be forgotten. For example, this one:

“Success is filled with MSG.” – Amy Poehler, Yes Please

It’s on my fridge, right next to the fortune cookie fortune that tells me I am “the crispy noodle in the vegetarian salad of life.” (Whatever that means.)

It’s not just quotes. References to classical painters, foods I’ve never heard of (thank you, J. K. Rowling, I never would have known that a humbug is edible), medieval medicine (Bile! Bile everywhere!), other prominent novelists, filmmakers … Especially filmmakers.


Mint humbugs.

I learned about famed Japanese director Yazujiro Ozu from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. François Truffaut entered by way of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore (or perhaps I should say the entrance stone?).

It’s funny. I heard of classic French films from a Japanese writer and definitive Japanese works from a French author.

To get to the point. From my recent literary wanderings I have compiled a list of films to watch this year. You are my witnesses.

Floating weeds


  • Floating Weeds
  • Tokyo Story
  • The Munekata Sisters



  • The 400 Blows
  • Jules and Jim
  • Shoot the Piano Player


Other films:

  • Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
  • Metropolis
  • Vertigo

Random side note: I’ve noticed that a good chunk of works titled after nature elements are 99% sad. Think about it. How Green was My Valley. The Sun Also Rises. The Wind that Shakes the Barley. October Sky. Or films with “happy” or “beautiful.” The Inn of Sixth Happiness. The Pursuit of Happyness. Life is Beautiful. A Beautiful Mind.

So … pass the kleenex, please!


Godzilla spawned a bunch of corny sequels with different nemeses like Mothra and Megalon, but I’d like to introduce a much superior one:




This is Bertha Mason. I adopted her from a guinea pig shelter (yes, those actually exist!) as a companion for Beaver, whom I introduced in a previous post.



Not Pigzilla.


Bertha’s not really into classic films. She prefers Nicholas Sparks adaptations. The Notebook is her favorite (also that one with Miley Cyrus). When she’s not binge-watching Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, she likes to read James Patterson novels while jammin’ out to Kenny G. on her iPod.


Bertha chowing down mercilessly on a carrot train.

Bertha chowing down mercilessly on a carrot train.


Sadly, she and Beaver didn’t get along. He’s laid-back and Bertha has a dominant personality, so she drove him crazy (hence the name). Thanks to an unexpected new roommate, though, everything ended happily. But that’s for another post. Now back to the film.

godzilla_1954_poster_03The original Godzilla came like a kick in the gut for its target audience, which was still reeling from the Hiroshima disaster and operation Castle Bravo. Hydrogen bomb tests destroy a harmless sea creature’s natural environment. Radioactivity deforms it into a giant voracious monster that emerges on land to forage for food — i.e., humans, and a couple of cows. Daisuke Serizawa, the eye-patched scientist, refuses to kill it with his top-secret formula. Kyohei Yamane, a prominent archaeologist, wants to keep Godzilla alive for research … which would make sense if they had any way to contain it. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko, goes around crying (although it looks more like she’s trying not to laugh), and tripping at crucial running-away-from-Godzilla-moments.


Emiko and Daisuke observing The Oxygen Eliminator’s effects in pure terror.

I love the top-secret formula’s name: “The Oxygen Eliminator.” Serizawa insists it can be used for good … in spite of the fact that it removes oxygen from the environment and then liquefies its victims’ flesh. That kind of thinking happens when you’re holed up in a basement lab for years. Plus in its present form, he argues, it’ll be manipulated by politicians. Newsflash: nothing’s safe from that in any form. When the others attempt to persuade him to use it, he tries to destroy it — in a scene that reminded me of this great Mitchell and Webb skit:

I thought ———— SPOILER ALERT!!! ———– Serizawa’s sacrifice in the end was needless. They could have pulled him up with the rope after he detonated the Oxygen Eliminator. Maybe the producer was trying to make a point — the scientific community suffers when its discoveries are manipulated for personal gain.

Godzilla surprised me. I walked in expecting a goofy, B-type film with no substance, just shots of a monster terrorizing Tokyo. Instead I saw a sombre, dialogue-driven film denouncing war and atomic weapons. The acting is powerful, the dialogue thoughtful, and the special effects — for the most part — are impressive for the time. Godzilla depicts the toll weapons take on society, regardless of their shape. If ever there was a film promoting peace, this is it.

Safety Last!

Harold Lloyd’s portrayal of life minimum-waged among bloodthirsty department store throngs will resonate with those who’ve worked on the other side of the counter (and that probably accounts for most of us in the 99%).


The classic 1923 silent comedy follows the misadventures of “The Boy,” who works as a lowly sales associate in The Big City.

It’s so accurate I’m convinced the film’s creators worked at Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s at some point. Not much has changed since then. That the phrase “Safety First,” which the film’s title parodies, is still used in corny mandatory safety videos just confirms it (John ignored safety first rules and stood on the top ladder rung. Now he’s dead. *Cue ominous music*). And the scene where hordes of sale-crazed shoppers attack The Boy could come straight from a modern-day Black Friday free-for-all.


It brought back fond memories. There’s this one scene where a matronly patron asks to see every bolt of cloth on the shelves. In the end she leaves with just a tiny free sample. My experience was similar, only it involved king comforter sets and the tallest shelf in the store. Ah, retail. How I … don’t miss you. 

The Boy promises his fiancé, The Girl (Mildred Davis), he’ll send for her as soon as he makes enough money for them to get married. Of course he lies, writing that he’s making gobs of money and ordering peons around when in reality he’s a lowly clerk behind on rent in the ratty apartment he shares with “The Pal” (Bill Strother, who has a fantastic albeit stomach-churning scene reminiscent of Ebbet’s famous photograph).


To prove his fabulous success, The Boy buys her a pendant — instead of paying rent — then later a matching chain (instead of paying rent). So naturally The Girl takes matters into her own hands and heads on over to The Big City to marry him. Seeing as he’s so wealthy and all…


This of course presents a problem for our endearing, not-quite-so-honest hero, and he concocts a scheme to attract customers to the store in exchange for prize money. The idea? Have his friend scale the store building. Only he can’t make it at the last minute, so guess who does it instead?


It’s a fantastic film; witty, true to life (some parts, anyway), and just plain fun to watch.



A Trip to the Moon

Liz asked if I would like to post about Georges Méliès’s 1902 French short, Le Voyage dans la Lune. Which apparently was inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the Moon and From the Earth to the Moon, and by Offenbach’s operetta Le voyage dans la lune, a parody of the two. What! Offenbach made fun of Jules Verne? This I must see.

Voyage to the Moon film

But anyway. I realized my post comes at a most opportune time — thanks to my procrastinating ways — since the Western lunar eclipse begins tonight. And while some may think it sheer lunacy to stay up past midnight, I most definitely will be awake. I’m already crazy to start with, anyway.

Back to our film. The story begins with an outlandish proposal: A journey to the moon. Astrologers are handed telescopes, which magically turn into stools, and they sit down. Lectures last a long time, after all. (Can they turn them back into telescopes, I wonder?

All obstacles overcome, they build a bullet-shaped rocket. A group of women sporting sailor outfits and tights push it into a cannon, and they set off. The ship approaches the moon — which looks more and more like a huge meringue pie with a face — landing smack dab in its eye.

Must have been a heck of a shiner the next day...

Must have been a heck of a shiner the next day…

They land, disembark, and after wildly gesturing at earth, fall promptly asleep, because making history is exhausting. Naturally, all the exciting stuff happens while they’re unconscious, including a lunar shower, which wakes them up. Armed with umbrellas, they begin exploration into a mushroom jungle. Or perhaps I should say umbrella jungle? Because as soon as one astronomer sticks his in the dirt, it morphs into a giant mushroom. Then a Selenite, an alien resembling a cross between a triceratops and the creature from the black lagoon, shows up. Curious but minding its own business, it hops about until one of the explorers kills it. It explodes in a puff of smoke. Way to destroy the natives, people. Soon an army of them surrounds the scientists and takes them to see their king, whom the explorers also destroy before making a dash for the bullet-ship. At this point, I started wondering how they would return to earth without a giant cannon and a bevy of sailor beauties. Barren landscapes meet the eye, the Selenites look hideous, and even if they didn’t, where would they find a sailor suit?


There’s no way the Selenites can look like this without some serious plastic surgery.

But never fear! One heroic scientist stays outside and pulls the bullet off a cliff with a sturdy rope, making it splash straight into earth’s ocean. Because gravity.


One of the creatures falls along with it, which begs the question: why is this the first time a Selenite lands on earth? At least one of them must have tried cliff-diving before.


I read that the scene where the rocket falls into the sea was filmed using a cardboard cutout in an aquarium with tadpoles. Pretty neat.

This film employed ingenious new special effects for its time, which makes it a must-see for any film fan. Its quirky French humor is just an added bonus.


Hugo, Automatons, and Early Movies

Liz: Yesterday, I watched the 2011 movie Hugo (based on the book The Invention of Hugo Caberet by Brain Selznick), and today I stumbled across blog posts on early movie projectors and automatons–both of which play a major role in Hugo. Funny how that happens. So I decided I to write about them.

220px-Hugo_PosterFirst, Hugo. I enjoyed this film with its giant clock, 1930s French music, orphaned Hugo Cabret (played excellently by Asa Butterfield of Ender’s Game) who finds a home, its message that we all have a purpose, and, as mentioned, its early cinema history and automatons.

Summary: Orphaned clockmaker’s son runs the clocks in a railway station in Paris while stealing food to survive as well as stealing mechanical parts to repair the automaton his father found in a museum. His life gets complicated when the toy maker he’s been stealing parts from takes his father’s notebook of automaton sketches. Hugo and the toy maker’s goddaughter try to get the book back, discover why it upset the man so, and avoid the railway station inspector, who considers it his duty to send orphaned kids to the orphanage.

The story was moving and the history intriguing. Playing off his clock maker’s father saying “there are no spare parts in machines” and his own visualization of the world as one huge machine, Hugo says that  each person is a “part” of the world. As a machine, the world would have no spares and, consequently, everyone in it would have a purpose. Hugo’s seems to be to fix broken things and people, like Papa George, the toy maker. A person who isn’t filling their purpose in the world would be miserable–would feel broken.

Okay, on with the fascinating history.

The Draughtsman-Writer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA.

The Draughtsman-Writer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA.

Automatons are mechanical men and were popular in the 1700s and 1800s. If you’ve seen Hugo, one particular historical automaton will sound familiar.The “Draughtsman-Writer” automaton boy sits at a little desk and writes and draws. He arrived at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA in a pieces, part of his body possibly partly ruined by a fire. His inventor was unknown. However, when put back together, this writer of  three poems and artist of intricate drawings revealed his mysterious maker by adding “Written by the automaton of Maillardet” on the edge of its artwork. Maillardet was a well-known Swiss clock maker and mechanician. For more information, check out this blog post.

Poem by the "Draughtsman-Writer" where he reveal his maker, Maillardet.

Poem by the “Draughtsman-Writer” where he reveals his maker, Maillardet.

Early cinema history. I can’t say much about this without giving away some of the story’s mysteries, so forgive me if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book. The story tells about the life of George Melies, a French magician turned movie producer. In 1895 he witnessed the Lumière brothers demonstrate their Cinématographe to the public. He tried to buy it from them, but they refused and he ultimately made his own machine and began screening movies and then producing and acting in his own.

Voyage to the Moon film


In 1896 his camera jammed, and from the resulting film, he discovered, essentially, how to  photoshop, to manipulate time and space in films. He developed double exposure (La caverne Maudite, 1898), split screen (in which performers act opposite themselves [Un Homme de tete, 1898]), and the first dissolve (Cendrillon, 1899). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a magician should be responsible for the illusions in movies.

Probably the best known image from Melies's films, or early films at all. From Le Voyage Dans La Lune

Probably the best known image from Melies’s films, or early films at all. From Le Voyage Dans La Lune

Moving picture technology actually has its roots way back in the 1830s. For more information on the early machines and inventors, check out this post (focusing the phantoscope and American movie history) and this post (a brief history written to commemorate the first commercial movie screening).

Classic Movies for Scientists

Science nerd rejoice! You have more than grade B sci-fi films to herald your profession. I was watching an old British movie (Highly Dangerous) and was pleasantly surprised to see that the heroine was not only a scientist, but an intelligent, normal person. She wasn’t merely a stereotype throw in to amuse the audience. It made me think about other movies featuring scientists. Here’s some that Jaz and I came up with that we science people can appreciate:

Margaret Lockwood and Dane Clark in Highly Dangerous. WIth bugs in a jar.

Margaret Lockwood and Dane Clark in Highly Dangerous. With bugs in a jar.

Highly Dangerous (1950). In this British thriller, the lovely Margaret Lockwood plays an entomologist sent by the government to Balkan country to identify an insect being developed for biological warfare. An American newspaperman helps her out when the British agent she’s supposed to contact is shot.

When the newspaperman admits he’s not digested by bugs, Lockwood’s character knows she’s found her man.:) And, as if a good story wasn’t enough, fans of Lockwood’s The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich will be happy to see Naunton Wayne in this film, though he doesn’t mention cricket even once.

Three Guys Named Mike (1951) Stewardess Jane Wyman is the object of the romantic attention of–you guessed it–three guys named Mike: one pilot (Howard Keel), one businessman (Barry Sullivan), and one chemistry graduate student (Van Johnson). Van Johnson take her to the research lab and gives her a great explanation for bioluminescence.

Cry Wolf (1947) Intrepid geology PhD student Barbara Stanwych goes to the family home of her late husband (a marriage of convenience–he had to be married to inherit and she needed money to continue her studies. He was to pay her and they go separate ways) after he mysteriously dies.

War of the Worlds (1953) A scientist and a librarian escape from one of the original sites of an alien invasion and try to find a way to kill the invaders. (This is science fiction, but it’s a great movie so I had to include it.)

Jaz added the biographies Madame Curie, a 1943 film with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936).

madame curieJaz: I saw Madame Curie a long time ago, so my memory of it is a bit fuzzy, but I do remember enjoying it. Also worth a watch: The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), starring Don Ameche, Loretta Young and a very young Henry Fonda. I haven’t seen The Story of Louis Pasteur. Yes, yes, I slap myself on the wrist. How can a microbiologist and classic film junkie not have watched this? Well, I’ll tell you: there are about a bajillion films out there! Give me a break, people!

Besides these, the only films that came to mind were Dr. Dolittle, Bringing Up Baby and The Absent-Minded Professor. All of which reinforce negative stereotypes of scientists. I mean, the latter film’s hero is named Professor Brainerd. Subtle, right? And they’re all super goofy and fly around on old cars and giant creepy moths. So we’ll ignore those for this post.

I also recommend any book by the brilliant Jules Verne, who obviously did his research for every work. There’s a 1916 silent film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I found out recently — actually just now — .and which looks fascinating.

The times they are unchangin’

So guess who gets DVDs by mail now? This girl! Two weeks ago Modern Times (1936) blew in through the post, along with Bridesmaids (I tell you I watch everything).


Modern Times was Chaplin’s first sound film — the 1940 film The Great Dictator his first “talkie”, which interestingly, he swore he would never make. In 1936 it seems he hadn’t reconciled himself to the advent of talkies. Except for a scene in which Chaplin’s  Tramp entertains a cafe audience by singing complete gibberish, he says not a peep. Narration and dialogue occur mainly on intertitles.

It’s also my first exposure to Chaplin’s work — don’t judge, internet. Can I be honest here? All that his name brought to mind before this was a goofy tramp with a tiny mustache. Modern Times changed that. The clarity! Paulette Goddard’s first scene stunned me. Her character, so joyous, so alive as she scrambles along the docks to survive, gritting her teeth against a sharp knife — and life.


Goddard as “A Gamin.”

The satire and humor! It’s impossible to pick a favorite scene from this film. Among the many is when Chaplin, on the verge of a nervous breakdown after working on a production line, goes on autopilot and attempts to tighten the secretary’s skirt buttons with his wrenches. Or how about after he falls into the cogs?

chaplin modern times

Or when the mechanic falls through it? And who can forget the American daydream house where grapes grow around the kitchen door and cows walk up for milking?

It’s not all laughs, of course — they live in the midst of the Great Depression. Tragedy comes in the form of a bread line. The tramp alternately lands in jail and gets fired. Life fights dirty and they fight back — often ending up on the losing side — but they try.

I was excited watching this film. Excited, frustrated, saddened, amused. I could relate to it in different ways — many people can. But the main feeling threading its way throughout the film? Hope. “Buck up — never say die!” the tramp tells “a gamin” as they sit, homeless and exhausted, along the side of a vast, empty highway. She does … and we do too.