Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Night to Remember

You'd have to be living on Antarctica if you missed any of the media coverage a couple of weeks ago recognizing the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking. In anticipation of the grim milestone, James Cameron's 1997 movie Titanic was re-released in theaters--in 3D no less, because 1,500 people plunging into deathly icy water is even more entertaining if they appear to be popping out of the screen. But if you're looking for a more classic (and, according to some, more realistic) movie adaptation of the Titanic tragedy, I highly recommend seeing the 1958 British film A Night to Remember.

That is not to say that Titanic was a bad movie. It wasn't. It was just tainted by a sappy love story, phenomenally expensive computer special effects, and Cameron's ego. After my father watched Titanic, he wanted to rent A Night to Remember, so we did. The film was based on the best selling 1955 book by Walter Lord. Lord grew up fascinated by the Titanic story and interviewed dozens of survivors to hear their accounts of that fateful night first hand. His book wove together their stories in an overlapping narrative style, and was a huge success. It's still in print today.

The book was first adapted as a TV movie, presented by NBC in 1956 on Kraft Television Theater. It was said to be quite a lavish production, featuring over 30 sets and 3,000 gallons of water, but while viewing it on YouTube I quickly got bored by the canned acting and slow pace. The screen movie version is much more compelling.

A Night to Remember follows the typical Titanic timeline: the launch of the ship (the movie shows it being christened, which I understand didn't actually happen), the travelers getting ready for the voyage, the differences between the first and third class passengers, the warnings about the iceberg, the eventual collision, sinking and aftermath. The visual effects seem more than passable considering the movie was made in the late 50s. The sets were inspired by actual blueprints of the Titanic, and many of the water scenes were done in very cold water in the middle of the night at an open-air swimming bath in a London suburb.

I didn't shed any tears while watching Titanic, but I find A Night to Remember particularly moving and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because it didn't focus on any one character or their back story (except for Second Officer Charles Lightoller, as played by Kenneth More), but showed the devastation in general. It's more of a tribute to the people who died and their legacy rather than a showy spectacle. We see mass panic, people trampling over each other, and a couple killed when one of the ship's smokestacks falls on top of them. But one of the most heartwarming (and heart wrenching) scenes is when an old, grandfatherly type man finds a lost child looking for his mummy. He picks him up and continues to comfort him (and protect him from the crowd) as the ship sinks, promising him that they'll find his mother soon. This clip shows the final moments on board before the boat disappears forever:

I think what's most amazing is that the movie wasn't nominated for any Oscars. It did win a Golden Globe for the Samuel Goldwyn International Award. A Night to Remember became an inspiration to Cameron and is still considered one of the best depictions of the Titanic tragedy. There's no computerized effects or Leonardo DiCaprio, but I still find it chilling and compelling. 

As an aside, I read a local news columnist's rant about how some young people tweeted that didn't know that the Titanic was a real ship--they thought the story was just a movie(!) Either the American educational system truly is failing us, or kids today don't watch PBS anymore; they're much more fascinated by texting or video games.  

Have you seen the movie? Do you prefer it, Titanic, or another depiction of the tragedy?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sassy: A Different Kind of Teen Magazine

Image via
Up until the late 80s, American teenage girls were limited with their choices of lifestyle/fashion magazines aimed at their demographic: Seventeen, TEEN, and the usual celebrity heartthrob rags such as Tiger Beat. Then in 1987, a new magazine was launched--one that made the effort to understand young women and speak to them in a way that made them feel like they were talking to their BFF. That magazine was Sassy, and it broke the mold in how magazine content was presented to young women. Sassy was only in publication until 1996, but its legions of past subscribers remain fervent fans to this day. There are websites featuring scanned covers and articles, a Facebook page dedicated to the publication, and a 2007 book called How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time, by Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer. So what was it about Sassy that made it so special? 

Image via Sassy Magazine LIVES
For starters, there was the "Sassy girl" herself. Those who read Sassy knew that there was more to life than being a cheerleader or acquiring a boyfriend. Sassy set out to inspire young women to shun stereotypes, think for themselves, and get involved with the world. Jane Pratt, one of the founding editors of the magazine, had grown up with the likes of Seventeen, and felt that she couldn't relate to many of its cookie cutter articles, mainly those that revolved around dating and social norms. ("Are You A Bore" was one such article that Pratt recalls seeing.) "I felt completely disinterested in all of the things I was supposed to be interested in," says Pratt in How Sassy Changed My Life. "I held no passionate response to any of it, whether it was pop stars or clothing that I was supposed to love to wear or the kinds of guys I was supposed to date." One of the inspirations for Sassy was Dolly, an outspoken Australian magazine that covered articles on masturbation and suicide written in an non-judgmental tone.   

Be Like Bob: Gender bending fashion feature from 1994. Scan via Sassy Magazine LIVES
That refreshing attitude showed up in the fashion features, where most models were not of the white bread blond hair and blue eye variety, but reflecting a multi-cultural background. Sassy also had a strong slant towards lovers of alternative and indie music; you were less likely to find pull out posters of Kirk Cameron within its pages; more likely to find Michael Stipe of R.E.M. As a matter of fact, Stipe became friendly with Pratt, who worked out a deal to distribute a flexi-disc recording of the band's single Dark Globe along with each December 1989 issue as a special holiday gift to readers.  

"Dopey Fashion Poses" from a 1992 issue poked fun at the modeling industry. Image from Buzzfeed.
The magazine also leaned on its readers to help develop content. There was a section called "Stuff You Wrote" where readers were invited to send in their short stories, poems, artwork and even "one sentence thoughts" (a pre-cursor to tweeting!) "It Happened to Me" published real life stories and even paid its authors $300 if their story was chosen for print. 
Image via Sassy Magazine LIVES
Then there was the fact that from the very first issue, the publication dared to discuss topics that other teen magazines wouldn't; namely, honest, non-judgmental sex education. One of the articles that appeared in that debut issue, "Losing Your Virginity," provided a frank description of the milestone event. According to former Sassy editor Elizabeth Larsen, whose essay about the magazine (Censoring Sex Information: The Story of Sassy) appeared in an English composition book called Short Takes, "The reader response to this article was phenomenal. Sassy and the article's author received hundreds of letters saying that finally someone had spoken to them in a way with which they felt comfortable."

Unfortunately, Sassy's openness for such topics was also partially responsible for its downfall. While many readers and their parents praised the magazine for shedding taboos about sexual topics, a Christian women's group called Women Aglow started a letter writing campaign to get Sassy's major advertisers to boycott the magazine, or they'd boycott their products. In a few months the magazine lost most of its advertising accounts, and was forced to shy away from controversial content. That, combined with increased backstage bickering among the staff, led to its being acquired and absorbed by TEEN (one of the very publications it tried so hard to differentiate itself from) in 1996.

Gone, but not forgotten. Memories of Sassy are alive and well online. Did you read the magazine, or date a girl who did?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Zou Bisou Bisou

Photo via
I'm purposely staying away from any reviews, spoilers, etc. of season five of Mad Men--I don't have AMC on my current cable package and don't want to pay for on-demand, and I prefer to gorge on an entire season once it's released on DVD. But I couldn't help but see the buzz of news last week after the season premiere that highlighted the performance of Zou Bisou Bisou that Don Draper's new bride, Megan, gave at his 40th birthday party. I honestly never heard the song before, so curiosity got the better of me...

Zou Bisou Bisou is a French pop piece sung by Gillian Hills that became a 60s hit. Hills' background is interesting; she was born in Cairo, Egypt to a Polish mother and English father who was a teacher and adventurer. Although she is mostly known for her singing, she also enjoyed an acting career, starring in the 1960 film Beat Girl and appearing in A Clockwork Orange. She also acted in a movie called Blowup in which she and French singer Jane Birkin shared a nude scene.

Zou Bisou Bisou translates to "oh you kiss kiss." In English, one of the verses means this:

My God, how soft they are!
But tell me, do you know
What that means, between us,
What does “zou bisou” mean?
It means, I confess to you,
But yes, I love only you!

Here's Megan's sultry performance of it on Mad Men. Is it me, or is Don in his usual douchebaginess really annoyed that his new wife is making a spectacle of herself? On another subject, the clothes are sure getting a bit more psychedelic this season--I love it! 

And here's Gillian Hill's performance of it--ooo la la!

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