Growing Up Is Hard to Do


If in early 1977 you had dropped off for a long sleep and, like Rip Van Winkle, awakened many years later, in this case late in 2017, and you were an avid moviegoer, you would find many changes in the types of movies that were popular in the different eras. Some of the biggest changes would have come about because of Star Wars (1977) which was released shortly after you nodded off, and was the first successful movie with “B” movie themes made on an “A” movie budget, and because of Batman (1989), which was the first successful movie to take a comic book character seriously.


Now in 2017 those types of movies have all but crowded out the big budget movies with adult themes that the major studios used to make, the prestige pictures like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) that David Lean directed, as well as other pictures by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. A few prestige pictures still somehow get made and released each year, but most movies with adult themes are small budget, mostly independently produced affairs that have a limited run in movie theaters before going to a movie rental service. The big money in Hollywood goes mostly to comic book superhero movies, “B” movies made with “A” movie money, and they take themselves very seriously.

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A promotional poster for the 1941 serial Adventures of Captain Marvel, with Tom Tyler on the left and Nigel De Brulier on the right. Serials like this would not even have had the status of “B” movie, since they were usually only about twenty minutes long instead of feature length, though their production values were just as cheap.


When Star Wars first came out in theaters, its director, George Lucas, knew perfectly well he was borrowing themes and story lines from old “B” movie adventure serials, and he reveled in those corny conventions with a wink at the audience, who understood the whole thing was a kitschy romp. Similarly for Lucas’s friend, Steven Spielberg, several years later when he directed Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), an adventure yarn based entirely on the cheap movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s. George Lucas was the executive producer on that film, and both he and Spielberg, talented filmmakers who were steeped in old film lore, were like kids playing in a very expensive sandbox. Those movies made a lot of money, but still no one took their stories too seriously.


That changed with the release of Batman in 1989, directed by Tim Burton, who claimed he was never particularly enamored of comic books, but who wanted to take the tone of his film far from the campy take on the comic book superhero of the 1960s television show. Burton nonetheless injected some tongue in cheek bits into his movie, mostly in Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker, though that may have been as much Nicholson’s interpretation as Burton’s. The movie was a huge success, and studios took note of how intent the fan base was on seeing a serious treatment of the subject when the fans followed every rumor about the film’s production, especially the casting of Michael Keaton, known at that time mostly for comedic roles, as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Comic book fans were upset that the casting of Keaton hinted the film would be another campy treatment, like the 1960s television series.

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A publicity still from the 1941 serial Adventures of Captain Marvel, starring Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel, here beset by two pesky foreigners.

When those same fans went to theaters and saw just how deadly serious Keaton’s Batman was, they were delighted. Ever since then, Hollywood has been ladling up more and more deadly serious comic book superhero movies to that fan base, who appear to be insatiable. Since Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) has achieved convincing results rendering the fantastic world of comic books over the past ten or fifteen years, movie producers have tripped over each other turning out more of these movies. All that CGI isn’t cheap, and a comic book movie can cost upwards of 100 million dollars to make. With a worldwide release, however, and all the merchandising tie-ins that comic book superheroes lend themselves to, a film studio can pull in upwards of one billion dollars from each movie.

A scene from the 1960s Batman television series, starring Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin, that points to the silliness at the heart of the dual identity superhero premise.


Lawrence of Arabia probably did not generate enough merchandising to be worth mentioning. It was also a complex character study, and therefore did not have the broadest possible appeal. Comic book movies do not have the broadest possible appeal, either, but they have a broader appeal than the old prestige pictures that asked some maturity of their audiences in order to understand their themes. Is this what we want? It is apparently what the portion of the public with generous amounts of disposable income and low expectations wants when they go to the multiplex, because comic book movies have come to dominate the marquee listings. It would be nice if more new prestige pictures made it onto the marquee, because those are movies worth paying to see on the big screen, and in a theater with a terrific sound system. For those moviegoers, unfortunately, these are times of poor pickings, and they might as well stay at home to watch movies on their own setup, or take a long snooze, waking up in forty years to see if “A” and “B” movies have returned to their rightful order in the alphabet.
― Vita


Strange Bedfellows


Legg’d like a man! and his fins like arms! Warm, o’ my troth! I do now let loose my opinion, hold it no longer: this is no fish, but an islander, that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt. [Thunder.] Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no other shelter hereabout. Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past.

― William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Act II, Scene ii).

After Hurricane Irma tore through Florida earlier this month, some stories surfaced about Florida homeowners with solar panels being unable to use their power in the power grid outages that followed. Like many stories, there was some truth to them, but not the entire truth. Due to intensive lobbying from utility companies, Florida has enacted more obstacles to solar energy than most states, despite the fact that its weather and latitude make it better suited than most to take advantage of solar power. Homeowners with grid-tied solar panel arrays without batteries or transfer switches were legally barred from using their solar power while the grid in their area was off line.

That in itself is not unusual compared to arrangements in other states, and should not have been the source of stories making it sound as if Big Brother was interfering in individual initiative. The problem was the stories focused on that part while at the same time ignoring the real story of how Florida legislators have systematically made business difficult for the solar power industry. It is usual practice to ensure grid-tied systems have safety measures in place such as transfer switches to prevent power from back-feeding on the grid lines and endangering utility workers as they try to restore electrical service. In Florida, however, it appears legislation has been enacted at the behest of the major utilities to go beyond this to ensure that grid-tied solar power systems could not be legally used at any time during a general power outage.

The MGM Tower in Century City, Los Angeles, with solar array atop the adjoining parking garage. Photo by SolarWriter.

So there you are sitting in the dark after Hurricane Irma came through, just like all your neighbors, despite the array of solar panels on your roof. If you had disassociated your solar array from the grid entirely, you might have had better luck, though that would depend on local building codes or homeowners’ association rules. But since you tied into the grid with your solar array out of economic necessity and convenience, you may find out belatedly you signed a bargain with the devil. It’s like that natural gas powered fireplace which turns out to be useless when severe winter weather has cut off all services. Lighting candles won’t do enough to keep you warm.

The invidious corruption of the Florida utility laws, pervaded as they are by money from the Koch Brothers and entrenched fossil fuel interests, has had the unusual effect of forging an unlikely coalition of Tea Party conservatives and environmentalists, known as the “Green Tea” movement. The Tea Partiers are motivated by their distaste for government telling them how they can power their own homes, and tilting the playing field against them should they decide to sell surplus power on the open market, all because of the undue influence of utilities on the government. Environmentalists decry the same government corruption, but see it as unfairly limiting options for homeowners to leave a greener footprint, besides getting in the way of individual exercise of freedom.

The 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean and edited by Anne V. Coates, had many great moments, and this match cut from flame to sun is one of the most renowned.

Florida is an excellent test case for how we will cope with a warming climate, much as some people don’t want to look at it that way. Florida is hot and humid. Before the invention and widespread use of air conditioning in the twentieth century, Florida was lightly settled precisely because of its challenging climate. Since the middle of the twentieth century, Florida’s population has boomed. Florida’s energy use is 40% higher than the national average, largely because of the extensive use of air conditioning. Look at Puerto Rico now in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. That could be Florida in a worst case scenario, which the state dodged as Hurricane Irma played out, as opposed to how an earlier forecast showed it might work out. Considering all that, it seems making solar power easier for all homeowners to implement rather than more difficult is the sensible option, no matter the arrangement of strange bedfellows.
― Izzy