Saturday, February 23, 2013

Downton Abbey Downer


The third season of Downton Abbey, the popular British TV series, came to a shocking end last weekend on PBS stations all over America. Over the past three years millions of Americans have tuned into this fictional account of an aristocratic English family and their staff of servants.
I must confess that my wife and I have not been among the devotees. We watched the first episode three years ago and tuned out when we figured that it would just be the same old class warfare stuff so often seen on Masterpiece Theater. So we missed the whole saga until two weeks ago when we watched the next to last episode at the urging of our visiting daughter, a big fan. She admits that it is a high-class soap opera but likes the characters and has really gotten into their unfolding stories. In addition, the show is beautifully presented and photographed with outdoor scenery matched by the indoor furnishings of the Abbey as well as the costumes of the characters. Moreover, it is well written and beautifully spoken, something rare in TV today.

We watched and enjoyed the episode and got caught up in the story or stories of the characters both upstairs and downstairs. We looked forward to the final episode and planned to watch even though our daughter had gone back to California. I even added the first season to my Netflix queue. The episode was interesting enough as some of the intertwining story lines appeared to be resolved. Most of the melodrama centered on the family heir whose beautiful wife was finally going to give birth to the next heir.
They played it for all it was worth including the final anxious rush to the hospital. But all went well. To everyone’s joy she produced a baby boy and moments later was sitting up in bed beautiful as ever with the baby in her arms waiting for her husband Matthew to return from a family visit to Scotland. He rushes in beaming and we are presented with a kind of Holy Family tableau. Was it possible that the show could have such a happy ending? No.

For some reason Matthew had to leave his wife and baby and drive back to the Abbey. So we see him speeding back in a little convertible along a single lane country road with an ecstatic grin on his face. Next thing, a lorry (truck) comes over a rise in the road and smash! The camera pans to the shattered convertible and there lies this very attractive and sympathetic central character of the whole show dead as a doornail with blood streaming from his head.

It was a shocking end to the show and a real downer. My wife and I looked at each other in disbelief. Apparently, many shared our reaction. Stories on the web indicate a real outcry about the ending. Some suggested that in true soap opera fashion the character would miraculously rise from the dead having only been injured in the accident. Others believed that it was just business. A contract dispute meant that the main character would not appear in Season 4. The director of the show offered some lame excuse for his incredible lack of artistic judgment. British audiences, he said, are used to shocking endings.

It is hard to imagine how any creative artist would take the trouble to build up and create such a sympathetic leading character and then kill him off by mere accident at the end of a book, play, or film. Even a tragic dark Russian author would not have considered such an ending. It’s like Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa and then putting a mustache on the woman. It's not just an injection of realism. How many men are killed by accident on the day of s child's birth? If they wanted some grim realism, they could have ended with a newspaper headline announcing the election of Hitler as Chancellor of Germany.

The legendary film director Frank Capra made some of the greatest films in history. He was an Italian immigrant whose family settled in California right before the First World War. By accident he got into the film business in Hollywood just as it was taking off. In his autobiography he describe how he learned the craft of filmmaking from the ground up. At the peak of his career he was the most famed director in Hollywood during what all regard as its Golden Age. He was the first director to get his name above the title of the film-- recognition that the film was his creation.

Frank Capra

Despite his fame and status, Capra never forgot his audience. Even his biggest hits were previewed in local theaters before they would be released. He and his associates would sit in the back and observe the reaction of the audience. If they laughed in the wrong spot, or failed to laugh when expected, Capra knew that he had done something wrong and the scenes were redone. Speaking of emotions no one could make an audience cry like Frank Capra. Some critics call his films Capracorn but few have been able to move an audience as he did. But he knew his audiences and though he might enlarge their understanding, he would never offend them.

A good example is “Meet John Doe” one of his greatest films. He had a wonderful story with a great cast that included Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. In the story set in the Great Depression, Cooper plays a washed up minor league baseball player who is built up into a national hero by a voracious newspaper and scheming politicians. He is turned into John Doe, an ordinary guy who plans to jump to his death from the city’s tallest building on Christmas Eve in order to protest all the world’s injustice.
Capra created a great cast of characters but he had real difficulty coming up with an ending. At least four different endings were shot and even though Capra was never completely satisfied, he trusted not his own intuition but the opinion of his preview audiences to produce one of the most powerful and emotional endings in film history. Here it is in stark black and white. ### 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Connecticut Snow Job


A local newspaper recently lauded the state and municipal workers who participated in the snow removal after the recent mammoth storm here in Connecticut. The paper commented that people should remember their heroic efforts whenever they think of complaining about the compensation and benefits of these and all public service workers.

I’ll go one step further and say that not only should public service workers be adequately compensated but also that there should be more policemen, firemen, teachers, and snow removal teams on the state and municipal payrolls. The fact that state and municipal services are under-staffed can be directly related to the overly generous benefit packages that have been negotiated over the past few decades.

For example, when a fireman in the town of Fairfield retires, his pension benefit will be 80% of his final year’s pay. So if his final year’s pay was $100000, his pension will be $80000 per year for the rest of his life even if he retires as early as age 55. In other words, he collects $80000 for not working while his replacement in the same job gets only $100000 for doing the actual work. There are thousands of state and municipal employees in Connecticut whose pensions are greater than the salaries of the young workers who have been hired to replace them.

Some will say that the fireman has paid into his pension over his working career but there is no way that his own contributions would have provided the amount needed to provide an annual income of $80000. At 4% interest it would take $2 million dollars to provide $80000 per year. Both the state and municipal governments have to provide for the cost of these pensions every year and they are squeezing the public coffers so dry that either new workers are underpaid, or even sacrificed when budget cuts have to be made. 

I am not suggesting that workers be deprived of their pensions but only that these pension benefits are overly generous. Who in the private sector can expect to retire on 80% of their highest year’s salary, For most of us Social Security benefits are based on our average pay over 30 years. A private sector employee earning $100000 can only expect to receive about $30000 per year from Social Security, and will have to wait until age 67 to collect.

These overly generous pensions are stifling government at every level. The Postal Service just announced that it will eliminate Saturday delivery, but if it weren’t for unfunded pension obligations the Postal Service would be solvent. Cities in California are going into bankruptcy because of unfunded pension liabilities. Here in Connecticut state aid to municipalities is being cut but the Governor has resisted any attempt to reform the Pension system.

It has been argued that negotiated contracts require these pension benefits and that these contracts are sacred. Yet, in most cases the contracts have been negotiated either by politicians who either were either too ignorant or uncaring about future financial liabilities, of just too self serving about their own personal and political needs. What incentive did Connecticut’s legislators have to negotiate on behalf of the taxpayer when they themselves gained virtually every benefit they gave to public service employees?

Andrew McDonald (left) accepts nomination
Governor Malloy on right

 A good example would be Andrew Mc Donald, the Governor’s long time friend, who was recently appointed to the State Supreme court. As a legislator he earned $35000 per year but participated in the State retirement plan. When the Governor made him his Chief Attorney, his salary jumped into the six figure realm. Now as a judge, he will earn $146000 per year but a State commission has recommended that judges’ salaries jump to $192000 per year by 2017. If and when that happens, Judge Mc Donald’s pension will be based on his judge’s salary and not what he made or contributed as a legislator. If he retires after 25 years of total state service his pension could exceed $90000 per year. What incentive did he have during his eight years as a legislator to rein in these out of control pension liabilities? ###

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Florida Vacation


The Weekly Bystander took the week off last week to get some R and R in sunny Florida. We spent the week on Longboat Key, a long narrow island on Florida’s West coast that stretches between the Gulf of Mexico on one side and Sarasota Bay on the other. Longboat Key is full of expensive beach homes, condos, and hotels but we always like to stay at the Rolling Waves Cottages: eight tiny cottages that are a real throwback to the 1950s.

These housekeeping cottages are nothing fancy but they are well equipped and maintained. The best part though is the beautiful white sandy beach that is only a few paces from your door. You practically have the beach all to yourself except for the pelicans and terns that continually dive for fish in a spectacular aerial display.

Otherwise there is not much going on at the Rolling Waves but a few miles down the road is trendy St. Armand’s Key, which is full of cafes, restaurants, and shops. From St. Armand’s Key it is but a short hop across the bridge to Sarasota, a city that probably has all the same problems as any other American city but still presents a beautiful waterfront prospect as you drive across the bridge. Sarasota is also a cultural and arts center. In addition to theater, ballet, and opera, it is also the home of the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art.

The Museum was built by circus magnate John Ringling on the grounds of his beautiful Italianate villa, Ca d’Zen.  The circus wintered in Sarasota and Ringling, one of the richest men in America in the 1920s, hoped that a world-class art collection might help to promote the city.

He was a little late in entering the Old Master collecting game since earlier magnates had gobbled up most of the available great works of Renaissance Masters. As a result he turned to works of the period that followed the Renaissance, the so-called Baroque. Baroque art was out of favor at the time especially since contemporary critics regarded it as smacking too much of the religious fervor of the Catholic Counter Reformation.

Francesco Cairo: Judith
Ringling Museum of Art

One of the most popular paintings in the Ringling is a striking version of “Judith with the Head of Holofernes”, a magnificent example of Baroque art by Francesco Cairo. It tells the story of the Biblical Jewish widow Judith, who saves her people by dressing up in all her finery to seduce and then kill the leader of the enemy forces. Here she is presented in a mixture of light and dark that is so characteristic of the Baroque. She has already done the deed and decapitated the drunken Holofernes with his own sword which is so elaborately depicted. As usual Judith is attended by her servant who will carry the head back to the Jewish camp and tell its leaders that their danger is over.

The Museum is currently featuring an exhibition of paintings by famed Venetian artist Paolo Veronese and his workshop that includes portraits, mythological subjects, and large-scale sacred subjects. The exhibition is augmented by works of Veronese contemporaries from the Ringling’s own collection. For example, there is a spectacular version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” one of the most popular subjects in Venetian art.

Veronese: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Ringling Museum of Art

In this version the Holy Family has fled from the deadly designs of King Herod and reached the relative safety of Egypt. They pause so that Madonna can rest and nurse her Child. Joseph looks on and pours some water for Mary while colorful angels hover about bringing fruit down from a palm tree. The palm was part of a famous legend that had the tree bending down at the command of the infant so that Joseph could pick its fruit.

The grounds of the Museum are really lovely and also include a Circus Museum that is well worth visiting. The Museum also has a variety of cafes and a very nice gift shop. A provision in John Ringling’s will allows free admission on Monday and we along with a horde of tourists took advantage of Ringling’s beneficence.

All in all, the Sarasota area is a wonderful place to visit, especially when you consider  the ease of getting in and out of its wonderful uncrowded airport. ###