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Giving Thanks for Planes, Trains and Automobiles

My holiday movie-watching tradition starts Thanksgiving weekend, the four-day holiday during which I usually have some pleasant and relaxing down-time. These days, it happens when the grown children and their children have left for their own homes after some chaotic few days of high chairs, potty chairs, sippy cups, and Sesame Street.

I nestle on a couch with my knitting needles and yarn, the remote and the dozen or so of my holiday favorites. It’s a contest to see how many I can watch in one marathon sitting. Call me a sap, but there is nothing better than a few sobs and tears at the end of The Family Stone or Love Affair (the remake with Warren Beatty and Annette Benning.)  I smile broadly each and with every last scene of The Holiday or Love Actually (even after crying each and every time Emma Thompson’s heart breaks.)

There is no better movie, though, to begin my marathon than Planes, Trains, and Automobiles with Steve Martin and John Candy, and written, directed and produced by John Hughes. It’s hilarious, it’s emotional, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s uplifting. As Roger Ebert once said, this movie is an arrow “straight to the heart”.

I’ve probably watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles 25 times. I didn’t discover it in the movie theater when it was released on the day before Thanksgiving in 1987. It the time, we were raising young daughters who were not even in school yet. We certainly didn’t spend much time or money at the movies that year unless it was Benji: The Hunted or The Great Mouse Detective.

So it was several years later that my daughters and I discovered Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Simply because of its R rating, we waited until they were older when the video made it to our home. (The movie earned its R rating for its funniest scene where Martin’s character is more than a bit frustrated with the car rental clerk. There are 18 F-bombs in the one monologue, certainly inappropriate for younger children.)

I’ve loved Steve Martin in many things, particularly his role as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. Like most of my peers, I chuckled through the Smothers Brothers, the Carol Burnett Show, and Saturday Night Live watching Steve’s comedic routines.  I enjoyed The Lonely Guy, Pennies from Heaven, and Roxanne but sometimes his slapstick was a bit awkward for my taste. It wasn’t until his roles in Parenthood, Grand Canyon, Father of the Bride and A Simple Twist of Fate that I began to truly appreciate him.

My favorite John Candy movie was Cool Runnings (1993), one my daughters loved, as well. We watched the movie over and over in the years after his death of a heart attack in 1994. Candy was only 43 when he died and Cool Runnings was the last movie released during his lifetime.

The beautiful irony in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (and don’t forget that New York City cab, Chicago Transit Authority commuter rail, and the back of several trucks) is that while both men appear to be caught in a nightmarish attempt to get home for Thanksgiving, it is only Martin’s character (Neal Page) who has anywhere to go. Clumsy and clownish Del Griffith (John Candy’s character) is genuinely trying to help, yet he can’t escape the disastrous results in each attempt.

I was a bit disappointed to learn that John Hughes, the producer, director and writer of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, originally wrote and filmed a different ending. I simply can’t imagine an ending that leaves out the perfect and poignant Scrooge Awakening when Neal Page reflects and discovers that Del Griffith actually has nowhere to go for Thanksgiving.

I adore this movie for its comedic moments, but I love it for its pain, heart and truth. Martin plays the extremely uptight Neal Page which, apparently, is more like Steve Martin’s true personality (much more serious and quiet.) Candy’s role as Del Griffith as a clumsy, obnoxious, ridiculous and sloppy salesman is sometimes achingly uncomfortable to watch. But he is real and he wins our hearts in most scenes because he tries so hard despite his sweet and honest self.

There are some fantastic cameos in the film. One is Kevin Bacon as Martin’s nemesis hailing a cab on the New York streets. Two days before Thanksgiving. In rush hour.  In real life, Kevin Bacon was hanging around after just shooting another John Hughes film and he volunteered for the uncredited role. William Windom begins the movie in the very first scene as a terribly confused executive who can’t make a decision. If you watch the credits all the way through, you’ll find Windom still trying to make up his mind on Thanksgiving in his boardroom, surrounded by his turkey dinner. In my childhood, Windom was a favorite TV actor of mine starring in Farmer’s Daughter opposite Inger Stevens. Edie McClurg plays the sassy and clueless rental car clerk and Ben Stein is the Wichita airport employee who broadcasts the cancelled flight that begins Neal’s and Del’s three-day saga.

In the beginning of his career, John Hughes was best known for writing, directing, and producing a handful of teenage angst movies (Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). It was the moralistic Planes, Trains and Automobiles that earned Hughes great respect.

John Candy acted in eight of John Hughes’ films and Candy’s death at an early age deeply affected Hughes who stopped directing after Candy died. Although he continued to write and produce, Hughes was involved in only eight films after Candy’s death from 1994 until his own death in 2009. Hughes died fairly young himself of a heart attack at age 59.

Of course, the Minuteman Library Network has most, if not all, of Hughes’, Martin’s and Candy’s films on DVD to borrow. Morrill Memorial Library cardholders can download and watch some of Martin’s comedic antics with Carol Burnett and Johnny Carson on hoopla, our streaming video, audiobook and music service. One of my favorite Martin movies is A Simple Twist of Fate (1993) in which Martin has a very serious role as the adoptive father of a seemingly orphaned child.  It is available on DVD or on hoopla – a must-see for the holiday viewing season.

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the December 1, 2016 issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

2016 Sneak Peeks

Reserve December & January 2017 Best Sellers and Sneak Peeks

Want to get a preview of some of the new releases coming out next month?

book-news-december-2016Download or view the  December Fiction and December Non-Fiction lists to see if anything interests you. Click on the links for the complete list with titles (in blue) linked to the Minuteman Library catalog.  Log into your account and place a reserve. You may also pick up a complete list in the library and ask librarians to request them for you.

The Golem of Prague from Rabbi Loew and Golem by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899

Silicon Gunslingers and Clay Philosophers

The Golem of Prague from Rabbi Loew and Golem by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899Before Jurassic Park released velociraptors on an unsuspecting public in Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel and the subsequent films, the author had conceived another story about amusement park mayhem. 1973’s Westworld featured visitors who dressed up as cowboys and interacted with lifelike robot gunslingers. When the androids start to run amok and disobey human commands, the park’s creators and its guests struggle to recognize the extent of the disaster and escape alive.

Following a trend of remaking cult classic films as prestige TV (including Fargo, Evil Dead, and 12 Monkeys), HBO has revived and updated Westworld. Part of this update is HBO’s use of graphic adult themes familiar to viewers of Game of Thrones, The Wire, or Deadwood, but more interesting to me is its focus on artificial intelligence (AI). In the original movie, the robots just, kind of, went bad, with no real explanation beyond the idea that it was cool to see Yul Brenner as The Terminator ten years before Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic role. The new show delves much deeper into the question of what consciousness means and how to differentiate between a machine that simply follows programming and one that evolves to develop understanding and even compassion.

While it is currently a science fiction staple, the idea at the heart of artificial intelligence goes back a long time. The 16th century legend of the golem of Prague describes the creation of a creature made from clay and animated with mystical instructions that led it to protect the city’s Jews from anti-semitic attacks. More famously, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) creates an intelligent creature from living tissue, but it is shunned as a monster and becomes violent and resentful towards its creator and other humans.

Subsequent works have followed up on these themes, questioning whether an artificial intelligence would be inherently benevolent or hostile towards its creators. Science fiction that explores these ideas also asks questions about the morality of creating thinking machines. The earliest film in the genre, Thea van Harbou and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), sees a robot impersonating the film’s heroine, Maria, and using her influence to destroy the city’s downtrodden workers at the behest of wealthy factory owners. The AI in this case feeds off of the worst in humanity, tricking the workers into acting against their own interests and ruining their homes before its true identity is revealed.

Under the guidance of Isaac Asimov in the 1950s, the monstrous depiction of AI in fiction was eventually reversed, particularly in the role of R. Daneel Olivaw. The robot detective stars in several of Asimov’s novels, which introduce the concept of the Three Laws of Robotics: robots should never harm humans or allow them to be harmed, they should always obey humans, and, finally, they should preserve their own lives. Each law follows the previous one, such that no paradoxes are allowed, but that robots are forced to serve the needs of their creators. As Asimov’s interpretation of artificial intelligence evolved, he introduced increasing layers of ambiguity and sophistication into his future worlds and explored what it meant for people to need such protection from each other and from themselves.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick and the film adaptation, Blade Runner, deal with these questions as well. With “replicants” imbued with human feelings and memories, but treated like machines, special police need to be employed to detect and punish the disobedient androids.  Detectives use a device similar to the real life “Turing Test,” which was developed to measure how well a computer can simulate human conversation.  Eventually, Harrison Ford’s character becomes disturbed by the violence he must use to hunt the replicants and questions whether they deserve as much of a chance to be free as humans do.

The best entries in the Terminator franchise (Terminator 2 (1991) and The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)) were surprisingly adept at bringing the idea of artificial intelligence out of the fringes of science fiction and into more mainstream entertainment. Time travel paradoxes aside, the characters focused on developing an understanding and compassionate relationship with their artificial companions in order to defeat Skynet, the evil AI that plans to wipe out all of humanity as a potential threat to its existence.

Battlestar Galactica (2004) and Person of Interest (2011) have also used long form television dramas to combine an interest in artificial intelligence and an examination of people’s fears and prejudices against those that are different from them. Galactica, like Frankenstein, presupposed that AIs would attack humans for hating and persecuting them, but then expanded on the concept by showing how humans turned on each other, unsure of who was “real.” In Person of Interest, people use a computer to try and predict and prevent crime, but this necessarily means profiling and pre-judging people who have, so far, done nothing wrong. The moral questions presented by the genre reflect a wide array of modern concerns, not least the need for compromise over black and white solutions and the rejection of ignorance.

2015’s Ex Machina provides a cautionary scenario for what happens when these lessons are rejected. A rich and reclusive inventor becomes obsessed with creating the perfect woman, but doesn’t like what he gets when she becomes self-aware and begins to think differently than he does. Robots throughout science fiction are usually seen as social inferiors and their treatment mimics the attitudes of privileged classes in the real world towards people of other races, classes, and beliefs.

Artificial intelligence is a real-world scientific goal, as well as a fictional trope, but so far no creation has passed the Turing Test. Until then, we can watch movies and television and read books to see the reflection of our own attitudes, good and bad, in our imaginary creations. The new Westworld is too recent, but the other titles mentioned in this article are all available through the library!  Some other favorites include:

Books

Hyperion, Dan Simmons
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
A Perfect Vacuum, Stanislaw Lem
The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross

TV and Film

AI: Artificial Intelligence
Her
Humans
2001: A Space Odyssey
WALL-E

Jeff Hartman is the Senior Circulation Assistant, Paging Supervisor, and Graphics Designer at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read Jeff’s article in the November 17th issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Book-group-photo

Build Your Own Book Group

Book-group-photoI should have seen it coming. Interest in my book group of over a quarter century had been gradually dwindling. The former minister’s wife moved to Rhode Island, the writer was taking a Tuesday night class, the endodontic office manager couldn’t commit, and the frequent flyer, well, just took off. Finishing the reading each month was encouraged if not required. Requests to refrain from giving away the ending, however, were almost always ignored.

Attendance waxed and waned over the years as new faces came and went, but we could usually count on a core group of eight. But when only two of us turned up in October, after a six-month hiatus, we were forced to read the writing on the wall.

Trying to determine how long we’d been convening, I recalled a particular incident. At one of our early meetings a thirsty member had inquired, “Where’s your booze?,” prompting the resident toddler to run and fetch his foul-weather footwear. He had apparently mistaken “booze” for “boots.” The kid turns 26 next week.

Book club wasn’t all about plot, dialogue, and denouement. The sweets and savories were also key ingredients, as was the wine. Some hosts stepped it up a notch and prepared special food that related to the reading. We talked about Isabel Allende’s “The Japanese Lover” while sampling made-from-scratch mango and green tea mochi. Lox and kugel accompanied our discussion of Kristin Hannah’s Nazi-era novel “The Nightingale.” And a gorgeous tarte tatin was the perfect complement to the posthumously published “Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemirovsky.

In the thematic culinary department I contributed precisely nil. I’m an appreciative eater if not much of an entertainer. More creative types might want to consult “The Book Club Cookbook” by Judy Gelman, containing “recipes and food from your book club’s favorite books and authors.”

Since most of us wouldn’t have seen each other since the previous meeting, naturally we’d have personal news to share. We were familiar with each other’s families, jobs, holidays, hospitalizations, and whose kids were struggling in school, going to prom, graduating, getting deployed, or getting engaged. There might have been a wee bit of gossip as well. If time allowed, we even talked about the book.

My youngest daughter, who called a day or so after the group’s demise, was sympathetic. As one of the original members, I’d been part of this book club her entire life. Belle told me how disappointed she was to have gone to only one meeting of a book group in Brooklyn before she moved away. The conversation eventually turned to what each of us was reading.

I had just finished Will Schwalbe’s moving memoir, “The End of Your Life Book Club”–for the second time. I’d meant to skim it just to refresh my memory but ended up rereading it cover to cover. In college I actually took a speed-reading course to train my eyes to jump from phrase to phrase. That practice ended abruptly with the final exam. When I read for pleasure I prefer not to rush. Perhaps the only advantage of this tortoise and hare approach is that I could usually recall most of the characters’ names at book group, having stayed up too late the night before reading every word.

Will Schwalbe—writer, editor, and devoted son—learns that his indomitable mother has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. To help pass the time during her lengthy chemotherapy treatments, they talk about books. While living down the street from Julia Child, with her husband and three children, Mary Ann Schwalbe was director of admissions at Harvard. She subsequently devoted her life to helping refugee women and children and building libraries in Afghanistan. She was universally beloved.

Aside from wishing I’d had Mary Ann for a mother and Julia for a neighbor, I loved reading about all the books the author and his mom discussed. I felt like a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on their conversations about life, literature, love, loss, and anything and everything else. Many of the titles they talked about I had also read, and now want to read again. As for those I hadn’t, the list in the Appendix will provide a lifetime’s worth of recommended reading. I calculated that our book club read roughly the same number of books in twenty five years as Mary Ann and Will tackled in two.

But back to my conversation with Belle. If the Schwalbes could start their own book club, why couldn’t we? She sounded intrigued and suggested we include her sisters. Easier said than done since we live in multiple time zones, but it seemed a great way to connect. I was dubious about the logistics until my co-worker told me we could video conference using Google Chat.

I got the green light from three of the kids. The fourth, possibly preoccupied with a new romance, said she’d consider it.
Like the girls themselves, their tastes in reading are totally different. The oldest is a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut and Wally Lamb, the next in line leans toward the classics, while the youngest chooses books I might never pick up on my own. Then there’s Katie, who’s been slogging through Herman Wouk’s “War and Remembrance,” at my urging, for the better part of two years. It’s become a joke.

I realize the odds of five of us agreeing on a book, reading the book, and scheduling a time to discuss the book–factoring in the nine-hour time difference and the inevitable technical difficulties–are slim at best. But no one could have predicted our first book club would pass the quarter century mark, nor could Mary Ann and Will have anticipated being granted enough time after her diagnosis to share their thoughts on over 200 titles.

The verdict is in. We’ll begin our hopeful endeavor with “My Brilliant Friend,” book one of the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. It’s not quite as ambitious as it sounds, since two of the girls have already read it and I’m halfway through, but still. To misquote the immortal words of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” “this could be the beginning of a beautiful book group.”

April Cushing is the Head of Adult and Information Services at the Morril Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts.  Read her column in the November 10, 2016 issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

2016 Sneak Peeks

Reserve November & December Best Sellers and Sneak Peeks

Want to get a preview of some of the new releases coming out next month?  Use the links below to find new fiction and nonfiction titles coming soon!

book-news-november-2016

Download or view the  November Fiction and November Non-Fiction lists to see if anything interests you. Click on the links for the complete list with titles (in blue) linked to the Minuteman Library catalog.  Log into your account and place a reserve. You may also pick up a complete list in the library and ask librarians to request them for you.

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