Thursday, July 26, 2012

Around the World with Saul Bass

Photo credit -

Saul Bass?  Don't I mean Phileas Fogg, the character who wagered he could circumnavigate the globe in 80 days?  We'll get to him in a minute.  First, let's focus on Saul Bass. Unless you've studied graphic design or are a film buff, you may have never heard of him; I had not until I came across this feature on the Noupe website.  He was a graphic designer active between 1954 and 1995 whose "minimalistic, conceptual sequences helped film titles become an integral part of the story and ultimately the whole cinematic experience."   You can watch videos of the work he did for such films as The Man with the Golden Arm, Vertigo, North by Northwest, West Side Story and more.  The one that caught my eye was for Around the World in 80 Days.

I found it so clever and amusing – sort of 50s graphics meets Monty Python animation – that I decided to check out the movie. It premiered in 1956 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture of that year, beating out Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I and The Ten Commandments, so my expectations were rather high. (It also won Best Cinematography, Best Music and Best Screenplay among others.)  In addition to starring David Niven as the aforementioned Phileas Fogg, the Mexican comedian Cantiflas as his sidekick Passepartout, and a very young Shirley MacLaine, the film boasts appearances by a host of other big-time stars of the era, for which Mike Todd, the film's producer, invented the term "cameo," enticing these actors to sign on for a small jewel of a performance.

 Now, there are some old movies, such as The Philadelphia Story with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, or any of the The Thin Man series with Myrna Loy and William Powell, which I find as captivating to watch (and re-watch) as audiences did when they were first made, the film equivalent of classic, time-tested novels.  But – wow! – was Around the World a different story.  Like the Jules Verne novel which sired it, it's set in Victorian times, but to me it says reams about the culture of the era in which it was made. The film was shot in 112 locations in thirteen countries, and there's a lot of footage where we, the viewers, are simply watching the scenery go by, obviously a draw in an age when international travel still wasn't all that common.  Other sequences such as a prolonged bullfight scene in Spain and an attack by Indians on a train in the American West reflect Mike Todd's assertion: "Bite your tongue when you call it a film.  It's a show."   From the library I borrowed a two-disc set with an introduction by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne plus lots of special features which actually were perhaps more interesting than the movie itself.  I was especially intrigued by the bio on Michael Todd, a man who truely lived large, whose only feature film Around the World was.  And who you may remember was the third husband of Elizabeth Taylor, at the height of her beauty here in this bio, reminiscing about the man she called one of her three great loves (along with Richard Burton and jewelry.)  So, would I recommend this movie?  Hmm...  Film critic Leonard Maltin concluded that this "Oscar-winning favorite has lost much of its charm over the years."  But here's another well-considered and informative perspective on the film by British cinema critic and historian Tony Sloman that might make you want to watch it.

Now, let's return to what brought me to this movie in the first place: Saul Bass.  If you don't have three hours (!) to spare for Around the World, you surely have ten minutes for this short documentary about the designer who "transformed the art of movie titles."  This I do recommend. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Illustration Friday – Lost

I had something totally different in my mind's eye for this topic, but after gathering a selection of photos from stock.xchng and playing around with them in Photoshop, what was in my mind's eye refused to materialize.  This is what happened instead.


There's the bottom image: Jungle morning by cendol – "on Gunung Gede, an inactive volcano, close to Bogor in West Java, Indonesia. The steam is coming from a hot water spring."  It's set to Darken blend mode over a white background. Layered over that is Archway by saine – "...from the Marble Mountains, north of Hoi An in Vietman."  It's set to Hard Light blend mode with the edges masked out to transparency.  Over in the right hand corner are some ferns from Wood by alitaylor – "New Zealand rainforest."  I used only a tiny portion of that image set to Linear Dodge blend mode; the rest is masked out, and there is additional shading and a bit of cloning from the other side of the image to darken that area. The child is from Flower Girl by nem youth – "Flower girl walking outside after the wedding." The girl was the only somewhat difficult element, mostly in terms of making her fit the image tonally. She's extracted from a bright, sunny image and after making her a Smart Object, she was adjusted with Shadows/Highlights, also has a slight Gaussian blur and a Paint Daubs filter. There is more shading and some distressing on her dress. So that's it. I think it captures a mysterious, dream-like atmosphere, with the child adding an enigmatic narrative element.

For those of you who haven't come to this page via Illustration Friday, do go have a look at their revamped website.  BIG much easier to browse the entries.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Orphans Update

Those two baby raccoons who first appeared in our back yard in April were indeed orphans, so I am the designated deliverer of daily rations.  But, no, they have not become pets (except in our emotions), and they retain a healthy fear of me.  They do often come scurrying when I announce that dinner is being served, only to stop short at the sight of me and hastily retreat, then turn again and head back toward the alluring food despite the terrifying giant lurking over it.  Finally when I have moved what they perceive as a safe distance away, they rush up and begin popping grapes into their mouths, grapes being their absolutely favorite edible. They don't even glance at the other foodstuffs until the grapes are all gone.  They also get a scoop of puppy chow each day and a selection of whatever other fruit might be on hand. Vegetables they aren't fond of.  Recently I've started giving them a little dish of full-fat yogurt with honey because they  don't seem to be growing all that much, and we thought perhaps they needed a nutritional boost.

They moved out of their lumber abode about a month ago and presently are living under our old car.  Yes, a non-running old car – how white trash is that? – but, really, we are going to donate it to our PBS station, although, now, of course, we have to wait until the babies are no longer living there. You ought to see how cute it is when a little head pokes out from under the wheel well and then a tiny body shimmies down the tire.  They come out only after dusk now, so these are probably my last photos of them.  We hope they'll eventually join the raccoon society of the neighborhood, although we may have set their culinary standards a bit high.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Voyage to Venice

While I was sitting at my sewing table patiently hand-overcasting the seams on my dress, I was also treading the streets and traversing the canals of Venice with John Berendt as my guide. You may remember him as the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the fascinating look at the city of Savannah, Georgia and some of its most eccentric and scandalous denizens.  He has followed that up with The City of Falling Angels in which he explores Venice and encounters another cast of uncommon characters.  Such as Archimede Seguso, a master Venetian glassblower who, with one son, is involved in a sad professional feud with his other son.  Or Daniel Curtis, the scion of a prominent nineteenth century American expatriate, unwillingly giving up the Palazzo Barbero where Henry James and John Singer Sargent were guests.  And then there's the daughter of Ezra Pound and his long-time mistress Olga Rudge, apparently bilked of her valuable trove of Pound papers by the director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and his wife.  Berendt introduces the reader (or listener, as was my case) to these and more, probing all sides of the particular stories he is telling and more or less letting us draw our own conclusions. Through it all runs the story of the 1996 fire that destroyed much of the great and beloved Fenice Opera House and its effect on many of the people in the book.  Lots of juicy gossip, some poignant history and vivid travelogue all rolled in one terrific tome that will whisk you away from the everyday.     

Earlier this year I listened to Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon by Andrea Di Robilant, her great-great-great-great grandson.  We first meet Lucia as a sixteen-year-old engaged to be married to Alvise Mocenigo from one of Venice's great families, and we follow her through a long life's vicissitudes, many of which are caused by the triumph of Bonaparte in Italy and his dissolution of the Venetian Republic.  There is also Avise's unfaithfulness, her own miscarriages, her love for an Irish officer in the Austrian military which results in the birth of a son.  We see her as in young bride at the Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice, at her husband's country estate of Alvisopoli, making her way in the court society of Hapsburg Vienna, residing in Paris where she socializes with the Empress Jos├ęphine and witnesses the fall of the Napoleonic Empire in 1814, while also studying botany at the Jardin des Plantes. Finally, in old age, back in a Venice still ravaged by the effects of Napoleon's occupation, she becomes a living relic of the city's great past, sought out and visited on Grand Tours.  The story resounds with her own words from her numerous letters, and we who have come to admire, appreciate and empathize with this woman can be thankful that her descendant who found those letters is such an engaging writer.

 The photos are from my one and only actual voyage to Venice in 1989. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Slow Sewing

I'm sure you've heard of Slow Food, the movement
begun in Italy in opposition to fast food, which is about, among other things, taking the time to prepare and savor traditional and regional cuisines. Since then other Slow movements have sprung up, all advocating a slower pace and a greater appreciation of whatever that particular Slow is about. Where Slow Sewing is concerned, I could be the poster child, often by default if not by intention. A case in point is this dress, Simplicity 1914. While it's not a make-it-tonight-wear-it-tomorrow sort of design, it's also not especially complex, not made up in a demanding fabric, no ornamentation or anything else about it that's obviously time consuming. So what took me so long to make it?

Simplicity 1914 After sewing up the lining for this dress and then deciding I didn't want to use it, my dilemma was how to finish the inside seams which were shedding threads at an alarming rate. I don't have a serger, but I doubt if I would have used it in any case. My machine does have some overcasting stitches, but the problem with that is that every impression shows through on the right side of this lightweight fabric, and I could see that all that thread up and down seam allowances would just be too much. I considered simply pinking the seams, but that was, well, maybe too easy. So I decided to try hand overcasting with some fine thread. I got out my copy of Claire Shaeffer's Couture Sewing Techniques, found the how-to and the illustration of the proper stitch and began.


Yes, it did take me quite a while, but I think it was the best solution. And I am of the persuasion that if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing right. (Please filter out any pomposity you might have detected in that statement.) I just sat and listened to an audio book and stitched away, not an unpleasant way to spend a few mornings. After a while I more or less got the hang of it. So here is the result of my efforts.


 I imagine those petites-mains who stitch away hour after hour and day after day in the Paris couture houses can probably achieve a lot more precision and regularity. For anyone who wants to try it, the three key points are: sit at a table where you can rest your garment at a comfortable height, wax and press your thread, and keep the index finger of your left hand on the thread when you are making your stitch.

Searching on the Internet, I see that I'm not the only one to try hand-overcasting on a garment. On Frabjous Couture, the blogger relates her experience in hand-overcasting a silk charmeuse blouse which she says she also sewed entirely by hand! 

In the March 2011 (Number 153) issue, Threads had an article about Slow Sewing. Author Patricia Keay writes that “Slow sewing is all about adding quality to your life, not just your sewing. […] There are fast and long ways on all of life's paths. Time constraints aside, I know that taking the longer way often gives me more enjoyment.” She goes on to make the points that Slow Sewing aids you in helping you improve your skills and thus increase your confidence. By taking your time, you're able to focus on learning new skills and explore creative techniques, rather than rushing to complete a garment. Lastly, she sums up “Paying attention to all the steps, even the ones that don't seem like they'll show, makes a noticeable difference in the end. […] When you take time for excellence, you'll see new levels of perfection and achieve every increasing satisfaction, because you've given yourself the opportunity for greater creative enjoyment.”

So if you need a reason to dawdle, if you're prone like me to dithering over the details, there's your perfect excuse.

To read my Pattern Review of this dress and pattern, click here