Iced in for the weekend

January 14, 2007

Before hiding out in anticipation of the “ice storm” hitting Texas this weekend, Diane and I had some comfort food for dinner at Denny’s on Friday night. We followed that with a trip to the grocery store to get enough provisions for a few days. After battling a touchy self-checkout machine and hauling groceries to our car in near-freezing rain, we went home and we have stayed in since. I have taken our pomeranian-chihuahua mix Arabella outside a few times, but we have avoided the great outdoors otherwise.

Diane and I normally like to go out on weekends (at least in the evenings), but the ice storm has given us incentive to stay home and work on some things. No big world waiting for us; just potentially treacherous roads. Our kitchen is clean, our laundry is done, and we did some “home work.” I will be teaching as an adjunct for the first time (albeit online), so I put the finishing touches on my syllabus.

Working on my own syllabus has been an interesting challenge, but working with Blackboard is the sort of challenge I can do without. Now I understand much better my wife’s frustration with it, because I hear about it every so often. Copying and pasting from Word into Blackboard makes an abomination of my nuanced manipulation of fonts, and I kept getting some weird messages while on Word about having no more storage space. Between terse grumblings of not-so-choice words, as well as frustrations with Blackboard and Word, I felt technophobia creeping back in a way I had not felt in years. Diane helped me through both problems, so I finally got my syllabus online (to be launched “officially” on Tuesday).

It wasn’t all work for us Saturday. We ate well for breakfast (eggs, bacon… typical cold weather fare), lunch (frozen Indian meals), and dinner (cooked shrimp and salad). After dinner, Diane had me pick something from our video library, so I selected North by Northwest. I suppose others have written about the things I like about the movie, but some “me too” comments intermixed with my own thoughts would probably be fine.

Of course, there’s the direction of Alfred Hitchcock. Things are wonderfully disproportionate or overblown, underscoring the crazy existential crisis imposed on hapless Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), who is mistaken for another person by some goons who work for the gentlemanly and sinister Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). The principal performers are all wonderful, including Eva Marie Saint as yet another member of Hitch’s legion of blondes, Jesse Royce Landis as Thornhill’s bemused mother, Leo G. Carroll as the avuncular and mercilessly pragmatic “Professor,” and Martin Landau as Vandamm’s henchman Leonard.

(As for James Mason, he is one of my favorite actors. Vandamm is one of many Mason characters who disguise a maelstrom of emotions behind a thin veneer of detached cool. His performance as Humbert in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is another great role in a similar vein.)

Snappy adult dialogue makes Hitch’s film even better, along with its various subtexts. (Yeah, I know it’s “stylized.” However, “realistic” dialogue can sound pretty stilted as well.) Sophisticated late-1950’s audiences probably had a field day with the film’s two “triangles.” Both involve Vandamm and Saint’s Eve Kendall, with Thornhill and Leonard at the margins. (Hmm… probably need a Venn Diagram here…) Dr. Freud probably would have stroked his beard with interest as well, especially with Thornhill’s mother tagging along for a little while in the film. Of course, Hitch explored mother-son relations with more disturbing implications in his next film.

Best known for the violin shrieks in that film, Bernard Herrmann composed the score for this one. He actually collaborated with Hitch on several films, and he composed the scores for a number of others, ranging from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver. If I may indulge in bad metaphor, Herrmann’s score for North by Northwest is the topping of the film’s cake, including the film’s “fandango” overture, as well as the “love music” that puts me in mind of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. More people say that about his music for Vertigo, but I hear Tristanesque elements in the intimate moments between Thornhill and Kendall as well. For some reason, the music especially reminds me of the “Night Motive” from the opera’s second act. As this synopsis says:

    This motive throbs through the rapturous harmonies of the duet “Oh, sink upon us, Night of Love,” and there is nothing in the realms of music or poetry to compare in suggestiveness with these caressing, pulsating phrases.

On a related note, Jack Sullivan (who recently did an interview with John Williams in The Chronicle) has just written a book about the importance of music in Hitch’s movies. So, it seems fitting that Hitch selected one of film’s greatest composers for his own works.

Anyway, enough about North by Northwest and my musical proclivities. Back to working more on my class and keeping warm…

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