Thoughts on a film: Hotel Berlin

hotelberlinJust watched an interesting film called Hotel Berlin, which came out in 1945, just about the time the war was ending. It is interesting for a variety of reasons.

It is from a novel by Vicki Baum, a Jewish Austrian writer who came to the U.S. in 1932 when her novel Grand Hotel was being made into a Hollywood film, and then who (quite naturally, under the circumstances) chose to stay. The novel from which Hotel Berlin was taken was actually written as a follow-up to Grand Hotel, and the two films would make a fascinating double feature.

The two films do have several things in common. They all take place in the lobby and rooms of a large, high-class hotel in Berlin, and they all concern the intertwining lives of a variety of people staying in or working in the hotel. And all the stories, in the end, follow a theme: In the earlier Grand Hotel, which was written in 1929, it is how the lack of and pursuit of money affects people’s lives. In Hotel Berlin, it is about how people cope with the waning of the Nazi regime.

In TCM’s commentary on the film, it is noted that this is one of the few films made during the war where both the good and the bad people are all German — and where both the good and bad are painted in complex shades of gray. A German general who had been a loyal member of the Reich until he lost all faith in his leader, and who took part in a failed coup, tries to escape his fate when he is discovered. A leading actress, who was quite happy to enjoy fame and fortune during the regime, switches sides back and forth in an effort to survive. A woman who became a hotel prostitute when her Jewish fiance was killed gives up her security when his mother comes to her for help. An escaping member of the underground depends on the actress for help — and then finds out that she may have betrayed him. And none of these people are portrayed as either completely sympathetic or totally inhuman. For the era, that’s unusual.

On retrospect, this becomes an even more interesting film, both because of some of the things we now know, and because of current events. For example, a Jewish woman walks into the hotel (after removing her star), is recognized and is told to go back to her section; when the film was made, the extent of the death camps were not yet generally known (or it is possible that the Hollywood producers, many of whom were European immigrants, were still hoping that some of their relatives were alive somewhere).

At the end of the film, two Nazi officials in plain clothes stroll out of hotel on their way to the airport; they are going to fly to South America, where they want to plan the re-emergence of the Nazi party there and in North America.

The film ends with a quote from a speech Roosevelt made in October 1944 that “it will be necessary for [the German people] to earn their way back into the fellowship of peace-loving and law-abiding Nations.” And I can’t help but fear that, considering recent events, this statement may, now or in the future, apply to the United States people as well.

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Waiting for display disaster

dell displayYou wouldn’t think I’d be nervous about setting up new tech. After all, as a tech reviewer — both as an editor and writer — I’ve spent most of my professional life setting up and testing new tech devices. And for the most part (except for the Microsoft Surface that got knocked off a desk a year or two ago), I’ve been able to unpack them, set them up, review them, and pack them up again without a great deal of trouble.

However, when it comes to something I actually paid for — something that I bought for my own use and am going to keep, rather than return after a week or a month — that’s a different story. Then I’m suddenly staring at the box that is sitting on my office floor or desk and wondering at what point I should unpack it — and what I’ll find when I do. Will I accidentally drop the phone the moment it’s out of the box? Knock over the monitor while I’m setting it up? Accidentally scratch the tablet?

For example, I just unpacked and set up a new display to use with a small Windows convertible tablet/laptop, a task it only took me over a week after it was delivered to get around to. Part of it was that I was too busy finishing a couple of freelance articles to deal with it — but I’m sure that another part of it was worrying what to do if the monitor didn’t connect properly to the docking station, or had some pixels missing, or somehow needed to be fixed or returned.

Perhaps this nervousness can be attributed to what happened years ago, when I bought a Gateway computer — and the monitor was, well, not up to par. (Gateway was once a fairly well-known company selling mail-order computers.) In those days, we used CRT monitors, which weren’t only not nearly as reliable as LCDs are today, but they were damned heavy; so unpacking and setting them up was not easy for somebody who didn’t have a lot of upper-body strength.

I stared at it from several angles. Yup, there were several dead pixels on the screen; meaning that there was these tiny black spots that would never go away. I called the company and told them about the problem. They agreed to exchange it — so I repacked the monster, schlepped it downstairs to be picked up and then carried the replacement upstairs.

Yep. More dead pixels.

Called the company.

Luckily, Gateway tended to be a good company to deal with. They didn’t mess around; this time, they simply sent me a higher-end third-party monitor that not only worked, but lasted me for years (until LCD displays became ubiquitous). I’ve always been grateful to them for that. (My back was grateful as well).

That was then, and this is now. My nice new display — which weighs a whole lot less than my old CRT — seems to be flawless (at least, until I knock it off its stand, or spray coffee on it, or offer it some other indignity).

Wish it — and me — luck!

A memory: Writing about videodiscs

Signature snippetI just discovered that I’ve been writing about new tech for longer than I thought.

My mother and I have been slowly going through boxes of papers, photos and memorabilia that were saved from the house when we moved. One of the things we found last time was a pile of magazines and clippings that had my byline on them — most from the 1980s.

Among them, to my surprise, was a clipping from my very first job at Signature magazine, where I worked from 1976 to 1977 as an editorial assistant. Signature was a travel and dining publication that was sent out to people who had the Diner’s Club credit card, which was mainly used by folks on an expense account. Besides doing simple editing, I was assigned short pieces to write — for example, descriptions of restaurants that had recently agreed to take the Diner’s Club card.

But this article, which appeared in the December 1976 issue, wasn’t about food or travel — it was about an exciting new entertainment technology called a videodisc that would let you actually watch a movie on your TV set whenever you wanted to. The article also described  another technology called Betamax, which could record TV programs directly off the set for later playback, but which was too expensive to be practical. (It retailed for $2,295 — about $9,800 in 2017 dollars.)

Besides reminding me how much things have changed, I now have evidence that I was — at least, occasionally — a tech writer straight out of college. Who knew?

 

A memory: Meeting Alfred Birdsey

Art by Alfred BirdseyBack in the early 1990s, it was the habit of most of the Ziff-Davis publications to take their staffs on “retreats” to interesting places. The idea was to get everyone together alone for several days to discuss strategy and bond — but it was also a great excuse for an all-expenses paid vacation. Which is how I ended up spending several days in Bermuda.

I don’t remember that much about it, weirdly enough. Other retreats, such as those to Key West and to London (the last we took) are vivid in my memory, but of the Bermuda retreat I remember very little — except for the few minutes I met the artist Alfred Birdsey.

We had the afternoon to ourselves, and whatever it was that other staffers were doing didn’t appeal to me, so I rented a bicycle and decided just to explore a little. As I was pedaling along, I spotted a sign for the Alfred Birdsey Gallery. I had enjoyed visiting crafts and art galleries on my vacations to Cape Code and other places, so I thought I’d see what it was about.

I found it to be an open shack and yard crowded with water colors, sketches and other artworks. I walked over, not sure whether it was open or not, when a thin, older man with a highly irritable expression came over and asked what I wanted.

I told him that I was interested in looking at the artwork. He shrugged dismissively, and told me to go ahead — obviously, as yet another obnoxious tourist, he didn’t think much of me.

Looking around, I thought most of it was interesting, but not much more than that. The colors were bright, and they were nice representations of various places on the islands. I wanted to buy myself a remembrance, and a gift for my parents, and this would be the perfect place — but I didn’t see anything I really liked. Until I saw two paintings, not as “photographic” as the others, one mostly in blues and the other in greens and yellows.

I asked him if I could find out the price of two of the paintings. He sighed, and asked which ones I wanted. I pointed.

He looked at me again. “Why do you want those?” he asked. It was a surprising question, and I don’t remember what I answered — I probably stuttered something inane about the colors and the mood. I knew next to nothing about the language of art and artists.

He told me that he was happy I chose those, that he was tired of people who just wanted paintings that were “no better than photographs” and he’d be happy to sell them to me. I don’t remember the price; it was probably less than they were worth. And just before I left, he grabbed another painting and insisted I take it with me.

When I got home, I immediately got the two paintings I had chosen framed. One is hanging in my living room; the other is with my mother. The reason that I am writing this is that I just found the third — which I had forgotten completely about — in a roll of posters that had been saved from our basement flood.

That’s all. There isn’t really anything else to say. Apparently, Birdsey had lived in Bermuda most of his life and was known for his impressionistic pictures; he died a few years after I met him.  I will have the third painting framed — I need it done carefully; it’s been rolled up for over 20 years now and I want it preserved. And I want to remember the irritable artist who made me feel special for a little while because I appreciated his style.

Trying a novel: If at first I don’t succeed…

Anna_Brassey_438-victorian-woman-writing-jornalA couple of years ago, I made an attempt at starting a novel. Not the first I’d started, but this time I was determined that I would keep on and actually finish a completed manuscript. I was resolute. I was ready.

It never happened.

So after several months of complete writer’s block, during which time I’ve started and abandoned several short stories, I’ve decided to give it another try. I’ve got part of a novel that I workshopped a couple of years ago, and which I think I can finished. Maybe. Perhaps.

The first thing that I realized was that I had a dozen or more versions of the beginning, and several stray bit and pieces from later in the story. Before I could write, I needed to at least isolate which segments I wanted to use. I needed also to track the characters and the culture. And I finally realized why some people used writing software such as Scrivener.

So I’ve spent the last two days going through the Scrivener tutorial, finding the versions of the first chapters that I want to keep, and entering all my characters into a list. What I hope is that I’m not doing all this as busywork to justify the fact that I’m not actually, you know, writing. Or to justify the fact that I’m not querying for more freelance work, or getting several phone calls a day from publications eager to hire me as an editor. That I’m really doing this as a preparation to finish at least one goddamn novel.

We’ll see.

Of bookcases and editing

bookcases in basementThere is something very satisfactory about building, say, a bookcase. On Monday, my cousin, his daughter, and his future son-in-law came over to help Jim and me assemble some bookcases that had been delivered from Home Depot (to replace some of those that had been ruined in the basement flood). We got four done; I started work on the fifth this morning, and Jim and I will probably finish that one soon.

The satisfaction is that, when you’re done putting in the dowels, and assembling the pieces, and turning the screws, you’ve got a bookcase. Sometimes you may not turn a screw correctly, or there may be a ding on the edge of one of the shelves from where you accidentally dropped it, or the quality may not be quite as high as you’d like. But you’ve got something to store your books in, and you put it together and it works.

I feel the same way about editing. Once I’m settled into a job, I know exactly what I need to do: Decide what stories are needed, assign them, get them back, edit them until they read well and are as factually and grammatically correct as possible, and then use online tools to build them and make them live. Hopefully, the result will be an article that, will enlighten or inform or amuse (or all three). Sometimes the article will need more work than I expected, or there will be glitches in the online tools used to put it online. But in the end, it will work.

Now I’m about to jump off the cliff into something new. There’s something exciting but a little frightening about that, especially after nearly a decade of employment in the same company. I’m hoping to land somewhere in the same continent I’ve been exploring for most of my career: That of the latest technologies — consumer or business — and the intersection of tech and human interaction. This has been what has fascinated me for years, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to earn my living reviewing and/or reporting on its various permutations. I’m hoping that will continue and that I’ll be able to build more interesting and up-to-date bookcases (as it were).

Meanwhile, I also write speculative fiction. But that’s grist for a somewhat different mill.

Some thoughts on co-workers as family

Years ago, when I had just graduated college and had been hired into my first real, adult, full-time job — as an editorial assistant for a travel publication called Signature, gone for lo these many years — my father took me aside and gave me this advice (not in these precise words, but this is the gist):

“When you start a job, somebody there — your boss, the personnel director — will tell you that the company is one big family, and that you’re now a part of that family. They may be very nice people, and say that with all the good will in the world, but it’s important that you don’t believe them. Because unless you’re married to the owner’s son, you’re not family.  And no matter how hard you work, how much time and effort and good will you give them, if they need to — for reasons that have nothing to do with you — they will get rid of you.”

Sounds a bit dire, doesn’t it? Not really. My father was an extremely astute man, and that advice has been a balm to my ego whenever I hit a bump in my career — I knew I had done my best, and while I deeply regretted the loss of the job, I didn’t waste time blaming myself. But he was not completely correct, either.

Because while he was right that corporate executives are wrong when they describe the company as family, he was not right when it came to the way the employees of some companies deal with each other. While there are organizations in which there seems to be a general sense of every person for themselves and screw everyone else (see: Uber), there are others where you have a group of people who sincerely like each other and the work they do.

What happens then? Then you have people who are more likely to enjoy starting work each morning and pushing to do the best they can. You have people who are truly dedicated to their work, not just because they are getting a salary, and not just because they want to get a raise and/or a new title, but also because by doing their job well, they make things easier for their friends who are working with them. They are more likely to collaborate well, come up with good ideas and carry out useful projects, and adjust to the changing demands that invariably come down from upper management.

They are more likely to stay in place, because they like and value the people they work with. And they are more likely to mourn when one or several of their members leave.

As with families, as the years go by, people will go their separate ways, make new friends, attach themselves to other families, and even lose track of those they were once close to. But the memories will always be there, and there will always be those times when two people meet and one says, “Hey, do you remember so-and-so? Did you know she moved to Washington and is now working for XYZ Corp?” “Omigawd!” says the other. “We haven’t talked for ages! Do you have her email address? I’ve got to get back in touch!”

And that’s what family does.