Saturday, November 22, 2008

Check out the retro mod Tomten holiday window display on South Park Street

Retro Mod Tomten
There are overproduced and assertive holiday decorations in malls all over town, but I'm fond of the more modest displays in the windows of individual shops that are content to charm, provoke a smile, or just provide a bit of warmth in the face of approaching winter. Like this display at Atomic Interiors on Madison's South Park Street.

That upside-down traffic sign? Turns out it really was a leading indicator after all.

Turns Out It Really Was a Leading Indicator After All
Photographic crystal ball? I posted a color version of this photo nearly a year ago. Someone had removed the top screw and let the sign flip so it pointed down and to the left. I wondered whether it was a leading political and economic indicator, pointing toward a a leftward turn in our politics and a downward turn in the economy. I'm always seeing these little omens in everyday things, and usually they mean absolutely nothing. Not so this time.

At the time, I thought the Junior Senator from Illinois was really running for Vice president on a Clinton ticket. I thought That she had a lock on the nomination and that she would have a good chance to be elected. The picture was a light-hearted way of finding omens and portents that reinforced my view. The housing bubble had started to break, but we were many months from seeing the real impact. What a year! I guess I'll pay more attention to unusual traffic signs from now on.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Warning to Vilas Park skaters. Or should it be directed at Wall Street investors?

Warning to Vilas Park Skaters, or to Wall Street Investors?
Thin ice is dangerous because it offers the illusion of solidity. It looks as if you could just step out and glide forever. This week, Wall Street demonstrated (once again) that the idea that we're anywhere near a stable floor in the stock market is just as illusory, and that relying on the recent past in today's market can be as treacherous as skating on thin ice.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Alfred Eisenstaedt's "Good Life in Madison, Wisconsin" circa 1948 on Google Image

Sixty years ago this year, Life magazine did a cover story about Madison, with photography by their great photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt. It was about Madison, but it was about more than Madison.

It was the postwar American Dream in pictures. The war was over, the midcentury boom was starting, and here was a Kodachrome vision of what life in America could be, an essentially suburban vision of the idyllic life in a city big enough to have cultural amenities and a major university, but small enough to have trees, parks, lakes and beaches -- and seemingly infinite green space. (And when, judging from the photo above, Madison Gas & Electric apparently didn't have to worry about air quality standards.)

Now that Google is scanning the entire 10-million image Life magazine photograpic archive and making it available through Google Image search, Eisenstaedt is among those Life staff photographers whose images will now be available online in much larger numbers. With a little judicious experimenting with search words, the search can even bring up specific assignments -- like the Madison story. Type these words into the Google Image search window: Madison Alfred Eisenstaedt source:life. You'll not only save a trip to the library to look up the old bound volume of Life, but you'll find a fascinating online visual experience.

What's cool is that the several hundred images include not only the photos that were published in Life, but also the outtakes. The color of the photos that were published (or perhaps considered for publication, there seem to be a few I never saw before) is -- all things considered -- pretty decent. Not so the outtakes like the one on the right. They're horribly faded and color-shifted. I imagine the former were kept in dark, humidity and temperature-controlled archival storage, while the latter were lucky to survive at all.

The scans are not very crisp, as is true of most photos scanned in high-speed batch mode (Google has scanned about 2 million images from the archives, and has about 8 million to go). But it hardly matters. While these images may be as softly blurred as memory itself, they also possess the evocative power of those moments when, with a sharp pang, you recover a long-forgotten memory that had seemed to be gone forever.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nothing like a bit of snow to really put the blue in the autumn blues

Nothing Like a Bit of Snow to Put the Blue in the Autumn Blues
What a shock. Madison's light dusting of snow yesterday was like a cold slap in the face. "I'm not ready!" I wanted to shut. "There must be a mistake! Make it stop!" Which it did soon enough, obligingly. Did you notice how blue sthe snow was? (Well, actually it wasn't -- that was me, leaving the color balance on the wrong setting when I stepped outside. But the result seemed to describe the way it felt.)

Make It Stop!At least it was more colorful earlier in the day. Every year I seem to forget that there will be snow, and every year it takes me by surprise. Where did autumn go? Can't it continue a bit longer? Why not? Why why why?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Caution: MBA program ahead?

Caution: MBA Program Ahead?
The new $40.5 million UW School of Business east wing of Grainger Hall opened this fall just in time for our financial system to collapse. The four-story addition is designed to foster interaction and collaboration among Wisconsin MBA students. These warning signs were on one of the doors this weekend. Something about the glass doors? Or a warning that investing in an MBA in today's troubled economy may be hazardous to your financial health?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The tree lights on University Avenue are back!

They're Back!
The reason to drive to and from work by way of 2700 Universty Avenue from now until the end of the year: Dr. Jack Kammer's Annual University Avenue Tree Lights Display. Just a quick grab shot the other night. Have to go back with a tripod one of these days.

Curtain rising on another classic at the UW Cinematheque, Le Plaisir by Max Ophuls

Curtain Rising on Another Classic at the Cinematheque
I love the UW Cinematheque, and last night we saw another classic, Le Plaisir by Max Ophuls. That gorgeous curtain rose creakily ("We're going to have that fixed," said Tom Yoshikami, who introduced the showing).

The silver screen came alive, and we were transported to a magical world of sparkling black and white imagery (a print flown in from France) and fluid cinematography that seemed all the more amazing for having been filmed in 1952. No wonder that filmmakers as different as Todd Haynes (who introduces the Criterion DVD) and Martin Scorsese revere Ophuls, one of the great masters of the tracking shot.

The action begins with a tour de force of camera movement and film editing, as we follow a strange masked figure and what seems like all of 19th century Paris streaming through the city streets to a ballroom filled with revelers, who are joined by the mysterious masked man, who throws himself into the dance with demonic energy until he finally collapses.

The film is made up of three Guy de Maupassant stories beautifully reinterpreted by Ophuls at the height of his powers. I usually don't like anthology movies. Their parts often make an awkward fit that doesn't hang together. Here it works -- partly because there's one longer story in the middle that's framed by two shorter stories, and all three are complementary in theme and tone.

I could go on and on, but I'll defer to this essay about Le Plaisir by Jamie S. Rich. You'll also find a number of stills at the link. But stills alone can't capture the tempo and movement of the film, or some of the grace notes it contains -- a transcendent coming together of the sacred and the profane in an old Norman country church, and an unexpected stop to gather flowers in a meadow that could have been photographed in paradise itself.

There's a wry wisdom, a tone both lyrical and ironic, in Ophuls' take on life and lust, love and loss. I can't help but think that it influenced two of my favorite directors in two of my favorite movies made just a few years later -- Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night and Truffaut's Jules and Jim. It was a great film experience, one that remains as vivid in my mind the day after, unlike so many movies that start fading away the minute you leave the theater.