February 02, 2014

Under Construction

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:16 PM

May 31, 2012

Automotive Dreams: Mercedes 300SL

The Mercedes 300SL has long been one of my favorite classic cars, not just because of the gullwing doors that gave it its nickname, but also thanks to its timeless, sensuous lines.

I've seen them at high-end auctions, where they sell in the million-dollar range, but I've never heard the sound of one being driven hard, it's direct-injection inline-six cylinder engine screaming. Until now.


Classic cars deserve to be driven; warbirds should be flown. They're at the apex of engineering and art, and simply can't be appreciated as static displays in a museum.

I'm a bit envious of the owner, but more than that I admire him for his ability to shrug off the dents and dings and road damage that comes with driving his Gullwing to carshows, so that he can simply enjoy the damn thing the way God -- and Mercedes -- intended.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:21 AM

February 20, 2012

The glory that was Hollywood: Soundtracks

I'm Hollywood's worst nightmare, which is ironic, given that I'm a lifelong film buff, a lover of film, someone who grew up in and surrounded by the movie business. Neighbors, classmates' parents, Dad's golf buddies; they were all part of the Biz, and going to the movies was a thrill from my earliest childhood days.

That having been said, I rarely see a film in a theater; there are countless reasons for this, including the behavior of audiences, who treat the experience as if they're sitting at home on the couch, talking, texting, crinkling wrappers, seemingly incapable of just sitting still and letting themselves -- and their neighbors -- enjoy the show.

But that's ignoring the elephant in the room: The movies themselves are often lacking: poorly written, badly acted, unoriginal, uninteresting, seemingly hell bent on ignoring Sam Goldwyn's timeless advice to filmmakers: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."

That's a telegram reference, kids.

Let's focus for now on one aspect of the movie experience: The soundtrack. There's nothing like a stirring soundtrack, the composer able to perfectly compliment the onscreen action, ears and eyes working together to draw the viewer into the story. We respond viscerally to things aural, and I suspect that we've all gotten goosebumps far more often from a thing heard than seen.

Big Hollywood columnist Ben Shapiro shared his Top Ten Best Film Composers of All Time this weekend; I disagree with some of his choices, but there are several that are simply magnificent, beginning with his pick for Number 2: Elmer Bernstein.

Bernstein was a prolific composer; his IMDB profile lists 242 titles over 53 years, and some of his work is so good it's become part of the American collective consciousness.

There's no better place to begin than his score for the 1960 blockbuster The Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Eli Wallach and Robert Vaughn.

This is perhaps my favorite theme in the entire canon of cinema soundtracks, a sweeping orchestral piece, so evocative of the West that it stands separate and apart from its film. Give it a listen and then we'll continue.

There are people who've never seen The Magnificent Seven, but instantly recognize the theme; it's truly iconic, reminiscent of Aaron Copland, at least to my untrained ears, not surprising, as Bernstein was Copland's protégé.

Three years later, Bernstein provided the score to another star-studded blockbuster, The Great Escape, also directed by John Sturges, with some of the same cast: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, along with James Garner, Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasance.

Based on a real-life mass escape of Allied POWs from German captivity -- and the aftermath -- the movie was lauded by survivors and remains popular for its casting and attention to detail.

Bernstein's score is used to great effect, and stays with the viewer long after the lights come up.

I find myself often whistling the melody, and did so whilst marching in boot camp, albeit very quietly. It's been nearly 40 years since I first heard this, and it instantly evokes scenes from the film in my mind's eye, especially Steve McQueen being escorted back to "The Cooler," and the sound of his baseball thumping off the cell walls and into his glove.

Topping Shapiro's list is Jerry Goldsmith, who scored 250 titles over 53 years. I first heard his work in 1970, when Dad took me and Grandpa to see Patton at the Studio City Theater, now a bookstore, on Ventura Boulevard, just west of Laurel Canyon. The film is most famous for George C. Scott's virtuosic portrayal of the brilliant and troubled general (he won an Oscar, which he refused), especially in the opening scene, with it's iconic monologue delivered against a gigantic American flag hanging behind the beribboned and bemedalled Patton.

But it's the score that's stayed with me over the years, the haunting, plaintive wail of trumpets, martial, echoing, like half-forgotten memories of past lives, past victories, past defeats; fitting, given Patton's belief in reincarnation -- and his belief that he'd walked ancient battlegrounds when the battles were still fresh.

The discordant notes figure prominently when we first view the aftermath of the Allied defeat by the Germans at Kasserine Pass in North Africa, buzzards feasting on the corpses of GIs, and later when Patton stands amidst the ruins of Carthage, telling Omar Bradley:

It was here. The battlefield was here.

The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman Legions. The Carthaginians were proud and brave, but they couldn't hold and were massacred. Arab women stripped them of their tunics and their swords and lances.

The soldiers lay naked in the sun ... 2,000 years ago.

I was here.

And Goldsmith's horns softly wail and moan, fading, fleeting ... like all glory.

Chilling. And marvelous.

Goldsmith made effective use of horns again in perhaps my favorite relatively-recent score, L.A. Confidential (1997), starring Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, Guy Pearce and James Cromwell in director Curtis Hanson's marvelous, gritty, neo-noir adaption of James Ellroy's novel.

There's corruption galore festering just beneath the glittering and glamorous surface of post-war Hollywood and Los Angeles, and Goldsmith's horns capture for me the yearning for lost innocence, the dreams turned to ash and sackcloth, of the cold reality that awaited those who came so eagerly to the City of Angels, and the faint hint of perfume and romance still to be found amongst the ruins of dreams.

Goldsmith and Bernstein are gone, and so too are the kind of scores they wrote. One less reason to buy a ticket at the box office, and why the best films are often playing at home.

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:21 AM | Comments (1)

October 06, 2011

Rainy Day Ensemble

It rained yesterday in Ventura, the first cold storm of the Fall, which meant it was time for my Rainy Day Ensemble: My old Navy trenchcoat and a fedora, much more useful (and stylish) than umbrellas -- which I loathe.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:08 AM | Comments (1)

September 17, 2011

It seemed a good idea at the time

A C-130 Hercules festooned with 30 rockets -- firing down, forward, and back -- to enable it to land in and take off from a soccer field. What could go wrong?

The slow-motion footage of that last landing is pretty incredible; even more incredible is that no one aboard the ill-fated bird was injured.

Posted by Mike Lief at 09:16 AM

September 06, 2011


The competition for the thistle seed was especially fierce this weekend in the savage jungle backyard, the birds vying for a spot on the feeder, looking for an opening in the pattern ....

They're remarkably territorial; this fellow stared down the intruder coming in from below, while another swooped in from behind, the light glinting off his ebony beak.

The afternoon sun provided some dramatic lighting, isolating some of the more skilled avian aviators against the inky shadows.

Look out! Behind you!

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:05 PM | Comments (1)

July 11, 2011

Bogie's looking distinguished

Bogie and I look at each other; I notice the grey in his eyebrows, his muzzle, frosting the tips of his ears. I wonder if he notices the grey in my fur. Bogie is almost 11 years old, a canine senior citizen, which fills me with a sense of dread at the thought of life without the happy hound, his mortality reminding me of my own.

When he spotted me that fateful day at the animal shelter, neither of us had any grey; now, we're both looking (ahem) distinguished. For an oldtimer, Bogie's still remarkably spry, leaping into the air and racing around the backyard, albeit without Roscoe's seemingly endless energy.

Bogie may not have Roscoe's stamina, but he's not afraid to take the (play) fight to the puppy. It's funny to watch Roscoe push, nip and bark at Bogie -- until the older dog decides to remind the younger dog who's boss.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:10 AM | Comments (2)

February 21, 2011

Those eyes! That lip!

Roscoe gazes into the camera for a brief moment before closing his eyes to bask in the morning sun, his lower lip characteristically thrust forward -- this time in enjoyment, I'm guessing. The pup is a true sun worshipper, following its rays around the room, twisting and turning, going wherever he must to maximize the heat -- and the enjoyment -- even if it means resting his head on a pajama-clad leg.

Roscoe checks out Pepper, noting for the record his displeasure that the cat is apparently not subject to the "No Animals On The Couch" rule, before looking for other spots in which a put-upon hound can sunbathe. Pepper didn't even deign to squeak, meow or hiss at the dog, content to simply loll about, reveling in his privileged position in the household hierarchy.

Posted by Mike Lief at 08:23 PM

February 07, 2011

When H.P. Lovecraft and modern science meet beneath the Mountains of Madness

H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness scared the bejabbers out of me when I first read it, more years ago than I care to admit. Lovecraft's metier involved establishing a mood of dread, slowly giving way to terror, by not describing that which hid in the shadows. He invented a mythos of immortal beings from another dimension, incomprehensibly ancient and powerful, for whom humanity was of no more significance than a flea on the ass of the Creator. Lovercraft's tales emphasized the size and age of the cosmos, making the concept of infinity frightening, as if we stood on the precipice of a vast, uncaring void.

Back to those Mountains of Madness: First published in 1936, Lovecraft's novella followed the exploits of an expedition to the Antarctic, where an ancient city is discovered beneath the ice.

Let's just say that there are things best left undisturbed under that frozen mantle.

Which brings me to a news story from modern day Antarctica, and a new addition to the Lovecraftian mythos.

First, the news.

Russian scientists are getting ready to break through miles of ice, exposing Lake Vostok to the surface for the first time in millions of years.

With only about 50m left to drill, time is running out for the Russian scientists hoping to drill into Vostok - the world's most enigmatic lake.

Vostok is a sub-glacial lake in Antarctica, hidden some 4,000m (13,000ft) beneath the ice sheet.


"It's like working on an alien planet where no one has been before," Valery Lukin, the deputy head of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) in St Petersburg, which oversees the project, told BBC News.

"We don't know what awaits us down there," he said, adding that personnel at the station have been working shifts, drilling 24 hours a day.

But some experts remain concerned that probing the lake's water - thought by some to be isolated from everything else on Earth - could contaminate the pristine ecosystem and cause irreversible damage.

The sub-glacial lake is located underneath the remote Vostok station in Antarctica.

Overlaid by nearly 4km of ice, it has been isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years. Some scientists think the ice cap above and at the edges has created a hydrostatic seal with the surface, preventing lake water from escaping or anything else from getting inside.

And if the Russian team gets through to the pristine waters, they hope to encounter life forms that have never been seen.


Space radar revealed that the sub-glacial body of fresh water was one of the largest lakes in the world - and one of some 150 subglacial lakes in Antarctica.

At 10,000 square km and with depths reaching 800m, it is similar to Lake Baikal in Siberia or Lake Ontario in North America.

Since the lake has remained sealed off from the rest of the world, scientists estimate that conditions in it have probably remained unchanged for some 15 million years.

For liquid water to exist in Antarctica, glaciologists suggest that the ice cap serves as a giant insulating blanket, able to capture the Earth's geothermal heat to melt the bottom of the ice sheet.

Sealed, cutoff from the rest of the world for 15 million years, perhaps with new lifeforms waiting to be discovered.

What could go wrong?

I give you, A Colder War, a novella by Charles Stross. Set in an alternate timeline, with world history having taken a significant detour in the 1930s, it postulates a world where that expedition to the Mountains of Madness actually took place -- and the implications for the Cold War.

It begins:

Roger Jourgensen tilts back in his chair, reading.

He's a fair-haired man, in his mid-thirties: hair razor-cropped, skin pallid from too much time spent under artificial lights. Spectacles, short-sleeved white shirt and tie, photographic ID badge on a chain round his neck. He works in an air-conditioned office with no windows.

The file he is reading frightens him.

Once, when Roger was a young boy, his father took him to an open day at Nellis AFB, out in the California desert. Sunlight glared brilliantly from the polished silverplate flanks of the big bombers, sitting in their concrete-lined dispersal bays behind barriers and blinking radiation monitors. The brightly coloured streamers flying from their pitot tubes lent them a strange, almost festive appearance. But they were sleeping nightmares: once awakened, nobody -- except the flight crew -- could come within a mile of the nuclear-powered bombers and live.

Looking at the gleaming, bulging pods slung under their wingtip pylons, Roger had a premature inkling of the fires that waited within, a frigid terror that echoed the siren wail of the air raid warnings. He'd sucked nervously on his ice cream and gripped his father's hand tightly while the band ripped through a cheerful Sousa march, and only forgot his fear when a flock of Thunderchiefs sliced by overhead and rattled the car windows for miles around.

He has the same feeling now, as an adult reading this intelligence assessment, that he had as a child, watching the nuclear powered bombers sleeping in their concrete beds.

There's a blurry photograph of a concrete box inside the file, snapped from above by a high-flying U-2 during the autumn of '61. Three coffin-shaped lakes, bulking dark and gloomy beneath the arctic sun; a canal heading west, deep in the Soviet heartland, surrounded by warning trefoils and armed guards. Deep waters saturated with calcium salts, concrete coffer-dams lined with gold and lead. A sleeping giant pointed at NATO, more terrifying than any nuclear weapon.

Project Koschei.

Would you believe that the dark, cold, primordial waters of Lake Volkov play a part in the goings on?

I had just read about the Russians coming close to breaking thought that miles-thick cap when I stumbled across this novella.

Serendipitous. And spooky.

You can read the entire novella online. Please do.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:44 PM