Category Archives: Movies and TV

Selective blindness


Watch this 1999 video by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. You won’t be sorry, I promise.

Did you get the number of ball passes correct? I really focused, and I did count correctly.

For those who didn’t see the 300-pound gorilla in the room, which I did not, this phenomenon is entirely normal. Did you ever not notice a friend’s new haircut? Or not realize that a sibling had gained weight over the last 10 years? If so, it’s not because you’re too self-involved. According to researchers, it’s how our brains are wired. It’s called “change blindness,” and it’s the phenomenon of not noticing something—even a 300-pound gorilla—when it stares us in the face.

There’s also “inattentional blindness,” when we don’t see the difference because we’re not looking for it. In the video, if didn’t see the gorilla, it’s because you were told to count the number of ball passes. If you’d been told to look for the gorilla, you’d have seen it. Which I did, easily, when I played the video back.

These blindnesses are shortcuts our brains take. There’s too much information to process everything constantly, so the brain fills in the space we don’t much care about. The brain assumes. And we know how assumptions can sometimes get us into trouble!

While inattentional blindness can be fun when it’s about gorilla videos or video games, it can have serious consequences, because if you’re not looking for gorillas, you won’t see them. So if you’re not consciously looking for motorcycles or dogs in the road, you might miss those, too.

So be careful out there! You never know when a 300-pound gorilla will be in the room.

Happy birthday today



Like lots of people, I like to stroll through the internet, and today while looking up some biographical material, I got caught up in what happened on April 4. Among other things, many cool writerly type people were born.

Robert_Downey_JrFor those who like action films, Robert Downey, Jr., an actor, singer, producer, and screenwriter, was born in 1965.

For those who like television shows (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, Boston Legal, and Harry’s Law), writer David E. Kelley was born in 1956.

Kitty_Kelley_Photo_by_Raymond_BoydIf you like to read about scandal, another Kelley, this time Kitty Kelley, was born in 1942. She’s the author of many best-selling, unauthorized biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Oprah Winfrey, and Nancy Reagan, among others. Called “the consummate gossip monger,” she claimed to be an “unabashed admirer of transparency.” However, when critics scrutinized her work more carefully, many of her “facts” were found to be unsubstantiated. Readers might not have cared.

MayaAngelouMaya Angelou was born on this day in 1928. To know her life story is to wonder what you’ve been doing with your own. She was a supper club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana, and professor. She was friends with Malcolm X and Billie Holiday. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than 50 years. Her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), brought her international recognition and acclaim. Some cities have tried to ban her books from public libraries, but her works, based on themes such as racism, identity, family, and travel, are widely used in schools and universities worldwide.

Robert_E__SherwoodFinally, in 1896, Robert E. Sherwood, playwright and four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was born. One of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, Sherwood was close friends with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Edna Ferber, and at six feet eight inches, was the tallest among them. He co-wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Best wishes to all.


Shooting this vacation movie

This photo, shot by Timothy H. O'Sullivan (1840-1882), shows Sutler's bomb-proof "Fruit and Oyster House" located in Petersburg, Virginia, during the siege of Petersburg (June 1864-April 1865).

This photo is not of the cabin I rented for vacation. Shot by Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840-1882), it shows Sutler’s bomb-proof “Fruit and Oyster House,” located in Petersburg, Virginia, during the siege of Petersburg (June 1864 to April 1865).

I got my credit card statement today, and the refund for my vacation cabin rental is on it, so now I can tell the story.

It was a movie-worthy vacation, blue skies, clear waters, scented pines—a movie that if I were pitching it to a Hollywood producer, I’d call Dos Amigos meets Chevy Chase on a bad vacation at the House of the Damned. Or maybe A Cabin in the Woods without the mad scientists.

Okay, so here’s what happened. The dos amigos arrive at the cottage late afternoon on Friday. We unload the car, open the cottage, pick our rooms, stash our stuff, and fill the fridge. By now it’s early evening and we turn on the stove to make a grilled cheese, and…the stove doesn’t work. And we’re cold, so we crank the heat, and…there’s no heat. We call the office and get an out-of-office message that they’ll be back Monday.

That has to be a lie, because it’s vacation season, so we make a ham sandwich and go to bed. The next morning, we drive down to the office and explain. They say they’ll send someone out.

He comes right away. He’s not a maintenance guy, he’s the lawn guy, but the maintenance guys are out of town at family graduations, and the lawn guy’s on standby. We think probably the circuits just got thrown, so he’ll fix that and we’ll be good.

And he does throw the circuit breakers, and he asks me to turn on the stove and see if the indicator light goes on, so I do and it does, and on a note of premature self-congratulations, he departs.

Night falls. We’re cold. The temps are dropping to 40 or so for the second night in a row, and we want some heat and a warm meal. So we turn on the stove, and the indicator light goes on, but in fact the stove does not heat up. And the furnace doesn’t kick in, either. So we make a ham sandwich and decide to go to bed. Except now we can’t brush our teeth, because we also don’t have any water. And the electric lights, when we turn them on, pulse. It’s like living in an emergency freezer.

The next morning we drive down to the office and explain what happened, and the maintenance guys come right out. They determine that the place needs an electrician, so they call him and we depart for a restaurant-cooked breakfast.

We come back early afternoon and he says everything is fixed. So I say, let’s do a check. I turn on the stove, and the indicator light goes on, and then the heat comes up. I turn on the furnace, and it kicks in. I turn the tap on the faucet, and water comes on. I hit the light switch, and the light comes out in a steady stream. All good!

The electrician and the maintenance guys take off. The dos amigos settle down in the rapidly warming living room to read. Just when I thought that the first-heat-of-the-season smell was a little too strong, the smoke detector starts to shriek. I pull the plug and drive down to the office. The maintenance guys come back and clank around on the furnace for a couple more hours. Then they dust off their hands and say it it’s fixed.

And it was. And it was good: stove, furnace, water, lights, all functioning properly. Except I never did get hot water upstairs. But the shower was downstairs, so tragedy was averted.

And today I got the refund. And a story.


Recreating the Old Masters

"The Music Lesson" by Johannes Vermeer

“The Music Lesson” by Johannes Vermeer

The other night, I was dragged kicking and screaming to Tim’s Vermeer, a documentary film about Tim Jenison, an inventor who had an idea that Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675, “The Music Lesson,” “Girl with a Pearl Earring”) must have used an optical device of some type to paint his pictures. Jenison developed this theory after looking at Vermeer’s finely detailed and proportioned paintings. How could Vermeer do it, he wondered.

Sounds boring, right? You couldn’t be more wrong.

Jenison was spurred by an idea that the British painter David Hockney suggests in his 2001 book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. Hockney’s thesis is that the realism in Western art that developed after the Renaissance was primarily due to painters using optical aids such as the camera obscura. Hockney argues that the photographic quality of detail represented in the work of the Old Masters is impossible to create without some kind of optical aid. Jenison sets out to demonstrate that Vermeer could have used such an optical device by recreating “The Music Lesson.”

Jenison examines the harpsichord he built as part of the recreation of the room for his experiment with "The Music Lesson"

Jenison examines the harpsichord he built as part of the recreation of the room for his experiment with “The Music Lesson”

First Jenison visited The Netherlands. He learned Dutch. He studied the architecture in Delft, where Vermeer lived and worked, and the old Dutch masters. He learned how to mix paints the way they did it in 1650 and then mixed the paints for his own work using those techniques. He learned how to build the furniture that people used in mid-seventeenth century Holland and then built replicas of the furniture you see in “The Music Lesson.” He commissioned a pot that exactly matched a pot in that painting. He learned how to make glass using mid-seventeenth century techniques, and then made his own lenses using that glass for his camera obscura. He met David Hockney and Philip Steadman, a professor who wrote Vermeer’s Camera, which supports Hockney’s thesis.

Jenison built a studio that replicated Vermeer’s. In it, he recreated a room exactly like that pictured in “The Music Lesson.” He built the furniture for it—both the harpsichord and the blue chair. He searched for rugs that matched. He built the windows and recreated the ceiling and floor. Everything matched exactly, to the inch.

He experimented with the idea of the camera obscura. First he built a black box. Then he found that a mirror worked better. Then he discovered that a curved mirror worked better still. Using this setup, he could reflect the image of the room on the canvas, one small area at a time. He then painted under the mirror. When the color on the canvas exactly matched the color in the mirror, he knew he was on the right track. The image emerged. In the most delicate areas, he couldn’t paint for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time before the closeness of the work caused his back and hands to cramp. But dot by dot, painstaking line by painstaking line, he painted an exact replica of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.”

He showed his painting to Hockney and Steadman. They agreed: the result was remarkable. And it showed that at the very least, Jenisen’s technique would have enabled Vermeer to achieve the level of detail that he did.

How long did Jenison need to get from idea to execution? 1,825 days. Five years.

So, I can hear you thinking, now I don’t have to see the movie. You’d be wrong. Jenison was probably more than a little obsessed, but he was likeably obsessed. He had an idea, and he explored every avenue until he accomplished what he set out to do. He faced failure and tried again. He got bored and kept going. He had accidents and started over. At one point, after he’s been painting the dots on the rug for about a month, he looks into the camera and says that if they weren’t making a movie, he’d quit. He even held a public rant when he couldn’t see the original “Music Lesson,” which hangs in Buckingham Palace.

But sometimes he had a stroke of luck. A brilliant idea. An experiment panned out. And the Queen relented and let him have a private, 30-minute viewing of the painting.

And he doesn’t quit. He keeps working, and at the end, he’s got his painting, and he’s answered the question to his satisfaction.

For those of you who’ve read Malcolm Gladwell and believe his concept that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, you’ll have noted that the time Jenison spends on his painting pushes him to the 10,000 hour mark. Is Jenison an artist, an art historian, an art expert? No. And he doesn’t claim to be. He had a question about technique and he worked until he demonstrated that his idea of technique could have been used in 1650.

It’s an awesome movie—a lesson about perseverance, following your dreams, and answering your questions. It’s a testament to the imagination and a celebration of it. In theaters now or on Netflix. Or, no doubt, a streaming something near you.


On this day in history: the movie


China SyndromeToday was a pretty uneventful day for me. I ran a free promotion on Amazon, which did okay. I went to the pharmacy and picked up some generic pain relievers, went to the bank, came home, worked, saw a friend. Pretty typical. Not exactly the stuff of an action-adventure film. Or a romantic comedy. Or even an indie literary adaptation.

But I got to wondering what else had happened on March 28 in years gone by. I like history. So I looked it up.

As it happened, a lot has happened at the end of March. On March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry occurred. At the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, a pressure valve didn’t close, contaminated cooling water drained away, and the core overheated. Then human operators, misreading confusing and contradictory readings, shut off the emergency cooling pumps. Within four hours, the core had heated to more than 4,000 degrees, just 1,000 degrees shy of meltdown, which would have released radiation across the country. As it was, the plant itself was contaminated.

One hour short of total meltdown, operators got the emergency cooling pumps working and the core temperature dropped. However, an explosion of hydrogen gas resulted in a radiation leak, and the Pennsylvania governor recommended a limited five-mile evacuation. As a consequence, 100,000 people fled the area. President Jimmy Carter, a trained nuclear engineer, had helped dismantle a damaged Canadian nuclear reactor while serving in the U.S. Navy. His visit to the plant calmed fears.

The unharmed Unit-1 reactor at Three Mile Island, which was shut down during the crisis, did not resume operation until 1985. Cleanup continued on Unit-2 until 1990, but it was too damaged to be used again. In the time since the accident at Three Mile Island, not a single new nuclear power plant has been ordered in the United States, although four new reactors at existing nuclear power plants have been commissioned but not completed.

So that was a big day for everybody in the country, really. In a life-imitates-art moment, the film China Syndrome, a thriller about the cover-up of safety violations at a nuclear power plant, was released on March 16, 1979, just 12 days before the accident. In one scene, a character says that a nuclear meltdown would render “an area the size of Pennsylvania” permanently uninhabitable. Spooky.

Other big days in March? On March 29, 1973, the United States withdrew from Vietnam. And on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley, Jr. shot president Ronald Reagan. Of course there have been a million movies about the Vietnam War, but even Hinkley’s assassination attempt has a film tie-in—his defense claimed that Hinkley was obsessed with the film Taxi Driver and tried to re-enact portions of the movie in his own life. The film, starring Jodie Foster, has a scene with an attempted shooting of a senator.

But those are stories for another day.



Remembering our Roots


Today I was talking to a friend about how all the TV shows these days are reruns. Are they waiting for the Olympics? Sweeps month? Out of ideas? Or scripts? Or just cheap? What?

rootsTV legends are born

Then I came home and googled around for fun, and learned that on this date 37 years ago, a TV legend began: The first installment of the TV miniseries Roots, starring LeVar Burton and based on Alex Haley’s novel, aired.

The TV miniseries was, of course, based on a book that Haley wrote after he retired from his Coast Guard service. Dropping out of college at age 17 after two years (he’d graduated high school at age 15), Haley signed up in 1939 and made the Coast Guard a career. He was a highly decorated veteran: he received the American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal and an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy. A Coast Guard Cutter was also named in his honor: the USCGC Alex Haley.

The genesis of story

Haley wrote short stories while still in the service, and he became a freelance writer after his retirement. He wrote a hugely successful set of interviews with prominent African Americans before he decided to write Roots. He wanted to tell the story of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves, and then their rise from slavery to freedom. He researched for 10 years on three continents. He visited his ancestral village, Juffure, Gambia, and listened to a tribal historian recount how Kunta Kinte, Haley’s ancestor and the protagonist of his book, was captured and sold into slavery.

Even so, Haley despaired that he could ever capture the essence of his story. He once said, “What right had I to be sitting in a carpeted, high-rise apartment writing about what it was like in the hold of a slave ship?” In an attempt to answer this question, he sailed from Liberia to America and spent his nights lying on a board in the hold of the ship in nothing but his underwear.

Book and TV miniseries made history

Doubleday published Roots—part novel, part historical account—in 1976. The book caused a national sensation and was published in more than two dozen foreign countries. More than 1.5 million copies were published in hard cover, and more than 4 million copies of the Dell paperback edition were sold. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

The television miniseries, first broadcast on January 23, 1977, still ranks among the 100 highest-rated programs. According to Nielsen Media Research, its eight episodes reached average audiences that ranged from 28.8 million households to 36.3 million households. Thirty-seven American cities declared January 23-30, the week the program aired, “Roots Week.” Television historian Les Brown wrote that the mini-series “emptied theaters, filled bars, caused social events to be canceled, and was the talk of the nation during the eight consecutive nights it played on ABC.”

Impact today

Haley died of a heart attack on February 10, 1992, at the age of 70. Today, he’s credited with inspiring a nationwide interest in genealogy and contributing to the easing of racial tensions in America. Time magazine called The Autobiography of Malcolm X, another of Haley’s well-known works, one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Speaking of his writing’s impact, Haley once said, “To this day, people, particularly African-American people but white people as well, will just totally, unexpectedly walk up and not say a word, just walk up and hug you and then say ‘Thank you.’”

Thank you from me, too, Mr. Haley.

While I was away…


I spent a few weeks in Wisconsin, in the lovely Door County, which is a vacation spot for locals. You know what I mean: lots of water frontage, kayak rentals, fudge shops. Very low key. Green. Restful.

While we were there, we went to the outdoor theater to see a double feature of Dark Shadows and The Avengers.  The theater was a blast–kids played soccer in the open field in front of the screen before the shows, and watching the obsessive SUV drive into spot after spot looking for the perfect parking place was almost entertaining enough on its own.

Both movies were extremely fun, and much popcorn was consumed. But is it just me? Watching Dark Shadows, I recalled what many writers have said about prologues: Kill them. I just thought that opening sequence went on forever and I waited… and waited… and waited for the movie to start. I love Tim Burton and I’d watch a movie of Johnny Depp doing his laundry. But he wasn’t in the prologue except as a voiceover. Maybe that was the problem.

The lost weekend


Yeah, not the way Ray Milland lost it in the 1945 movie. In the movie, Milland goes on a four-day bender and sees how he screwed up his life. Generally speaking, a right jolly film and a mention just in time for this year’s Oscar season. For those who want to know, The Lost Weekend was based on a semi-autobiographical novel written by Charles R. Jackson and won four golden statues: for best actor Milland, director Billy Wilder, best picture, and best screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett). In the movie, the Ray Milland character is also a writer, and he pawns his typewriter (1945, remember) for a drink.

My lost weekend was not exactly lost, certainly not this way, just sort of misplaced. I wanted to work on my own book, but my characters are stuck in a car half-way across Nevada. What are they supposed to do now?

So instead I worked on other people’s books. And it was a very productive time, peaceful and sometimes needing a bit of a push, like hatching an egg, I suppose. I felt happy. Except I just don’t know how to get those people out of the car and out of Nevada.