Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Worth Watching: Desk Set (1957)

Title: Desk Set
Director: Walter Lang
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Desk Set is a charming office romance featuring Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn), the head research librarian at a major TV network, and Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), an engineer whose giant computer might cost Bunny and her team of librarians their jobs.

One description I read of this movie claimed that Bunny and Richard clash dramatically, but I didn't find this to be true. The movie shows them slowly getting comfortable with each other and developing a mutual respect; both of them are quirky, middle-aged nerds, and their romance is gentle.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set

Bunny has a boyfriend at the beginning of the movie - one of the network executives, in fact (played by Gig Young) - but he desires her more for her dependability and usefulness and less for her personal qualities. Richard, on the other hand, just likes her as she is and respects her work. Given that Desk Set was filmed in the 1950s, I was surprised that the movie did a fairly decent job portraying a group of smart, hard-working women in the workplace who are friends and colleagues. These ladies are also very snappy dressers.

Joan Blondell and others in Desk Set

The only woman whose portrayal was off-the-mark was Richard's finicky lab assistant, who collapses into unnecessary and unrealistic hysterics at one point, because the filmmakers thought it would be funny.

I enjoyed the giant computer, EMERAC - really a sign of the times, how huge this computer was. And though computers have become much smaller, and more powerful and multifunctional, the concern raised in this movie is still relevant today: In what ways will computers take the place of people in the workplace? The movie's answer to that is rather sophisticated; it really takes into consideration the kinds of jobs people perform and the limitations of computers.

What else did I like? Bunny's friendship with her most senior employee, Peg (Joan Blondell), and their fun at an office holiday party.

Katharine Hepburn and Joan Blondell as Bunny and Peg in Desk Set

I'm glad I came across Desk Set. It's low-key, lovely, with some well-written conversations and memorable scenes (including a rooftop lunch combined with a test of memory and logic). The screenplay was written by Nora Ephron's parents, Phoebe and Henry; I'm not that familiar with their work or with Nora's, but if you're a fan, that's another reason to check out this movie.

*All images link back to their sources (The Movie Projector and Glamamor).

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Gordon the Self-Made Cat and Guardians

Collection: Tails of Wonder and Imagination: Cat Stories
Editor: Ellen Datlow


Title: Gordon, the Self-Made Cat
Author: Peter S. Beagle

This isn't a children's story, or it doesn't have to be one anyway; it reminds me of a Pixar movie that can be enjoyed by adults and kids.

Gordon is a mouse who doesn't see why he has to be consigned to a life of keeping out of sight, fleeing from predators, and trembling in fear in small dark holes in the wall. So he decides to learn how to be a cat. The principal at the cat school is skeptical at first:
The Principal was a fat old tiger cat who chewed on his tail all the time he was talking to Gordon. "You must be out of your mind," he said when Gordon told him he wanted to be a cat. "I'd smack you up this minute, but it's bad luck to eat crazies. Get out of here!"
But Gordon is persuasive, and the story follows him through the cat school courses, which include: Running and Pouncing, The Elegant Yawn, and Making Sure You Get Enough Food Without Looking Greedy (101 and 102). There's also an Assistant Professor of Tailchasing.

This is a funny, enjoyable story. Thought-provoking, too; it gets you thinking about the extent to which our behavior is influenced by culture and learned habits.


Title: Guardians
Author: George R. R. Martin

I like this story mostly because of the amusing main character, Haviland Tuf, an intergalactic tradesman, mercenary, and ecological engineer. Tuf is large and pale, fond of cats and dishes with mushrooms. He speaks with a prim, exaggerated formality. ("Sea monsters can be most vexing" or "Always I must truckle to suspicion... They are fortunate that I am so kind-hearted, or else I would simply depart and leave them to their fate.") He knows every courtesy, yet there's always a faint thread of contempt in his voice, an exaggerated patience for what he sees as other people's stupidity.

In my head, he sounds like The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.

Tuf hears about an aquatic planet, Namor, beset by what appear to be unbeatable and extremely destructive sea creatures; these creatures are rapidly adapting to the planet's modes of attack and defense. When Tuf arrives at Namor, he liaisons with the Guardians, who serve as the planet's governing body and military. Naturally, the author writes them as more limited in perspective and imagination than Tuf.
"Your uncivilized ultimatum forced me to unwise action in order to placate you. Fortunately, while you have spent your nights gloating over transient and illusory victories, I have continued with my work."
I would probably tire of his character in the course of a long novel, but in a short story I can enjoy Tuf. I liked the way he discovers and presents the solution to Namor's problems at the end.


Other stories from this collection include: Puss-Cat (by Reggie Oliver), The White Cat (by Joyce Carol Oates), Coyote Peyote (by Carole Nelson Douglas), Every Angel Is Terrifying (by John Kessel), and Tiger in the Snow (by Daniel Wynn Barber).

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Week in Seven Words #155 and #156

Week in Seven Words #155

cat's cradle
The dog criss-crosses her leash around and through my legs.

The weather, in a way, is perfect: a cloudy cold day, not too cold, the air fresh and scented with herbs and flowers. Because the garden is only half-alive, a sunny day might have made it seem burned out and dead. But the winter mist brings out every hint of color in the broken twigs and grey-green leaves.

Neighborhoods laid down side by side: slums and fast food joints giving way to gabled homes with chocolate trim.

The bench, sheltered in the gazebo, overlooks the garden, the pale river, and the clouds.

Maps fire the imagination. This one has names like 'conifer slope' and 'aquatic garden' that sound intriguing but turn out to be a sodden hill and a fountain that isn't active in the winter.

Cacti of all kinds: some look like rosettes on a cake, others like cold sorbet fuzzy with ice, others like balls of electricity.

I like when the subway climbs out into the light and rattles alongside rooftops and billboards.

Week in Seven Words #156
A cold wind that seems to scrape out the inside of your skull.

Gristly duck and faded decor in a restaurant that was once great.

In a span of five blocks we see something like 10-15 people in Elmo costumes. One of them has terrible body odor, so no one stands next to him.

A dusting of snow on the curbs and benches.

Making money off my writing gives me a really good feeling.

When the ghosts start swarming out of sewer vents and subway stations, the dog yaps at the TV.

Through her dolls she tries to cope with her anxiety about broken bones and reassure herself of a speedy recovery.