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Saturday, June 30, 2012

An Evening at Ritz Cinema: Part 2

"Hmm, what are they showing tonight?"

In Chapter 62 of All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot recalls the evening he met Helen outside the cinema for their second date.  With ten minutes before the first of the two movies was due to start, he found the doors shut and the lights off.  He had lured Helen here with the promise of seeing the second movie, a film about the Hebrides, a group of islands off the coast of Scotland.  Yet, as he stood in the darkened street, he wondered if the cinema would open.  After their misadventures at the elegant and expensive Reniston Hotel, the local cinema had seemed a safe choice.  Would their second date prove as disastrous as the first?

My wife and I usually arrive at the movies with time to spare, and our visit to Ritz Cinema in Thirsk was no exception.  Unlike Herriot, we arrived not ten minutes before the movie was due to start, but well before the doors were scheduled to open.  As I set about documenting our visit, one of the workers saw me photographing the schedule.  She opened the door and handed me a copy, asked if anyone else wanted one, and then shot back inside. 

It seemed we still had to wait until 7 pm, the scheduled “opening time.” 

With a single screen, Ritz Cinema harkens back to an era before televisions found their way into our homes, let alone the multitude of electronic devices that allow us to access any kind of recorded entertainment whenever we desire it.  I studied the schedule, noting the mix of movies listed.  An animated movie by Aardman Entertainment, the studio that brought us our beloved “Wallace and Grommit,” had shown two weeks ago.  We had wanted to see it back home, but we had been too busy preparing for our trip to England.  Last week, it seemed we had missed “The Last Marigold Hotel,” a film that had not appeared in the multiplexes back home.  The movie starred Judi Dench, an actress best known in the U.S. as M in the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig “James Bond” films.  We had first fallen in love with her for her portrayal of Jean in the British TV sitcom “As Time Goes By.”  Even though the story dealt with British people spending their retirement in India, there were so many actors we recognized from British TV and movies that “Marigold” seemed the ideal movie to see in a British cinema.  Yet the poster for this week’s offering, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” promised to be “The British Comedy of the Year.”  (Well, we’d just have to make up our own minds about that).  The next week, the cinema would screen a documentary about the legendary reggae singer from Jamaica, Bob Marley.  After that was Marvel’s “Avengers,” not the old British duo of John Steed and Emma Peel, but a team of superheroes such as Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, and Thor that we had seen in San Diego before leaving for England.  The mix of films seemed eclectic, and rich with international flavors.

I smiled, remembering the single-screen cinemas of my youth.  With a thirteen-inch black-and-white TV at home, no cable or satellite channels, and no VCR, I had visited such cinemas regularly.  (They had been outdated then).  As with Herriot’s visit to Ritz Cinema, I had spent entire evenings in two local cinemas, often enjoying double and triple features.  Sometimes the one I most wanted to see was the older movie on the bill.  Thus, I caught films I might not otherwise have seen, particularly low-budget Sci-Fi movies that had not earned much money in the modern multiplexes.  (As with most of the single-screen cinemas, many of those movies exist only as memories today).  On such evenings, I saw the movie that kick-started Mel Gibson’s career, the post-apocalyptic adventure “Mad Max,” long after its sequel, “The Road Warrior,” appeared in the multiplexes.  I snuck into the R-rated “Galaxina” at one of those cinemas.  (Sadly, its star, Dorothy R. Stratton, had died before the movie’s release).  I discovered Roger Corman’s signature low-budget style with “Galaxy of Terror.”  On several occasions, I enjoyed the stop-motion animation, laser beams, and explosions of “Laserblast.”  It didn’t matter if the scripts could have been better written, the actors’ performances wooden, or the special effects cheesy.  Just going had been an event, and sitting before the big screen, watching the stories unfold, had been one of life’s great pleasures.

Perhaps that’s why we still arrive early at the cinema, even if we know we’ll have to endure twenty minutes of trailers after the scheduled start time.  

Hollywood often releases so many movies at once that we don’t get out to see some of those we’ve been looking forward to, let alone discover a gem among the rest.  Usually, movie attendance is relegated to a matinee on Sundays, when prices are reasonable and crowds minimal.  I could not help but wonder: if my local cinema offered me fewer choices, if they charged a more reasonable admission price, and if each week they showed a mix of movies similar to Ritz Cinema, might I forsake my widescreen TV, my DVD collection, and all the recorded shows on my DVR to frequent my local cinema on weekday evenings?  

If I lived in Thirsk, I couldn’t help but think that, with its seemingly attentive staff, I might make Ritz Cinema a weekly event.

Still waiting for the doors to open,
Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries featuring
Wallace & Grommit:

Judi Dench:

Friday, June 29, 2012

An Evening at Ritz Cinema: Part 1

"There had never been much attempt at grandeur in its architecture,
and the entrance was hardly wider than the average shopfront."
James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small

In the waning chapters of All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot writes about his courtship with Helen Alderson.  Their first date was suggested by his coworker Tristan: a dinner and dance at the Reniston Hotel outside town.  On the drive there, his old, beat-up Austin 7 gets a flat tire.  While changing it, his shoes get soaked in a puddle.  At her insistence, they return to her home and he borrows her father’s shoes.  When they finally arrive at the elegant and upscale Reniston, he learns that no dance is scheduled for the evening.  All in all, he views their first date as a disaster.

Yet a visit from Helen gives him hope.  She brings Dan, the family dog, to Skeldale House, and assists him in fixing the dog’s dislocated hip.  Afterward, Mrs. Hall brings out tea and biscuits (cookies), and this time, as they sit and talk, he feels none of the awkwardness he did at the expensive hotel.  That night, when he calls to follow up on Dan’s condition, he summons courage and suggests a second date, this time at the local cinema. 

The evening of their date, Tristan asks if he’s really taking Helen to the pictures.  James asks “Why not?”  Tristan says that he would have suggested something more enterprising.  James “gave a bitter laugh,” and reminds Tristan of the Reniston disaster.  This time he’s looking for a safer option.  Tristan agrees: nothing could be safer than The Plaza.

James arrives outside the cinema ten minutes early.  Not willing to risk having another flat tire, or some mechanical difficulty with his old Austin, he’s asked Helen to meet him there.  He stares at the plain-looking cinema tucked in between the ironmonger’s and the chemist’s shop.  The lights are off, the doors closed.  Is The Plaza even open tonight?  Yet a few groups of people stand nearby, and he notices “a bunch of small boys rolling and fighting on the pavement.”  Might this second date prove a disaster equal to their first?  Then he spots Helen, and she offers him a wide smile and a cheerful wave.  Suddenly, he feels sure that everything will be all right.

Why are we seeing a movie about Yemen
on our trip to England?

I’m not sure why I fixated on spending an evening at Ritz Cinema, the movie theater Alf Wight (James Herriot) called The Plaza.  Nor am I sure why, each day of our stay in Thirsk, I put off going.  I think what initially gave me the idea was how the story leaps off the page in the book.  It also helped that the cinema has received minimal upgrades over the years.  Had it been transformed into a modern multiplex, for example, I would not have bothered. Yet I was afraid of being disappointed, of attending and feeling no closeness to James, Helen, or the events of their second evening together.  Nor did the movie, “Salmon Fishing in Yemen,” sound like our usual cup of tea.  Finally, I tend to be an early-to-bed, early-to-rise person these days.  After a full day of exploring Herriot Country, why should we leave our pleasant, little hotel and risk being disappointed?

The idea of visiting Ritz Cinema, and experiencing that Herriot connection, however, had taken hold in my wife.  In the end, it was she who got us out to Thirsk that last evening.  As we approached the cinema, I could see that Herriot was right: the Ritz was a small, unimposing structure.  We arrived early, and as in the book, the doors were closed, no line had yet formed, and only a few people waited outside.  Yet my wife smiled easily, and her conversation sounded upbeat.  I vowed that, regardless of what happened, I would enjoy our evening at Ritz Cinema.

Waiting for the doors to open,
Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries

Related Internet Links

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Robert E. Vardeman: Keeping Us on Course

A treasured novel
on my Star Trek shelf.

In “The Naked Time,” an episode of “Star Trek” written by John D. F. Black, Mr. Spock and Joe Tormolen beam down to Psi 2000.  The planet is breaking up, and this process rocks the Enterprise with gravity fluctuations.  Scientists stationed on the planet went insane before they died.  When Spock and Joe unknowingly bring an alien virus back to the Enterprise, erratic behavior spreads among the crew.

In The Klingon Gambit by Robert E. Vardeman, Spock and Candra Avitts are studying a curious life form on Delta Canaris, a gas giant that rocks the Enterprise with frequent gravity fluctuations.  Then Captain Kirk is ordered to Alnath II, where they find the Vulcan science ship T’pau.  Although the vessel is undamaged, all aboard are dead.  Studies cannot determine how the Vulcans died.  The planet was deemed free of harmful viruses.  An archeology team, surveying a strange pyramid, seems healthy.  Suspicion falls on the Terror, a Klingon ship also orbiting the planet.  Might the Klingons possess a weapon that could kill without leaving a trace?

As in “The Naked Time,” discipline aboard the Enterprise breaks down.  Mr. Chekov grows trigger-happy, nearly starting an interstellar war.  Mr. Kyle suddenly abandons the Transporter room to take up sculpting.  Fights break out all over the ship, and unrestrained alcohol use hastens the collapse of disciple.  Mr. Spock wrestles with his emotions, as well as his growing affection for Candra Avitts.  Doctor McCoy, who has always distrusted technology, starts operating with twentieth century surgical tools. 

Others strive for greater excellence in their duties.  Mr. Scott, for example, scavenges necessary parts from systems all over the ship to increase the efficiency of his engines.  Without its original parts, the autochef dispenses a nutritious but unappetizing purple gruel.  And the Andorian Dr. Threllvon-da, the head of the archeology team, is unbothered by the Vulcan's deaths.  Instead, he's more driven than ever to uncover all traces of the culture that once called Alnath II home.

The particulars of “The Naked Time” and The Klingon Gambit are different, yet both ask an important question.  Which aspects of our natures should we restrain, and which should we unleash?  I’m most taken with two examples in The Klingon Gambit, that of Mr. Kyle and Scotty.  Vardeman suggests that Mr. Kyle opted for a safe, dependable career, and suppressed his artistic inclinations.  Meanwhile, Scotty seems to have abandoned all sense of scope.  He cannot recognize that his engines are already operating at peak efficiency, and that other systems are just as necessary to keep the Enterprise and her crew functioning at optimum levels.

I won’t ruin the novel for you by revealing either what caused the Vulcans’ deaths, or the breakdown of discipline aboard the Enterprise.  But if there’s one thing I take away from The Klingon Gambit, it’s how easy it is to lose sight of what’s really important.  Thank you, Robert E. Vardeman, for reminding us of the need for frequent reassessments.  They can seem a pain to perform, not to mention a waste of time.  But unless we regularly reevaluate our lives, how will we recognize that, somewhere along the way, we’ve taken a detour, and must steer ourselves back on course?

Live long and prosper,
Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Building a Bionic Reality

Torn from an issue of "Hello" magazine.

In 1972, Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg excited people with the idea of bionic replacements for injured limbs and damaged organs.  TV shows like “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman” explored how such technology might not only allow recipients to live ordinary lives, but to serve their communities in extraordinary ways.  Visions of a bionic tomorrow fueled hope among the disabled.  When I wrote to Kenneth Johnson, asking for permission to share a portion of our correspondence with you (included in yesterday’s post), he also offered this insight.

“In addition to what I wrote you previously about my responses to disabled kids, I often said that maybe they would grow up to be the doctor or scientist who actually helped create such real bionic devices.”

I would not be surprised if Kenneth Johnson’s TV show, and his encouragement to disabled children, bore such fruit in today’s technology and medical fields.  While many use Science Fiction to warn against dystopian futures, other authors empower us to dream about a better tomorrow.  I’m not sure what dreams fueled Israeli entrepreneur Amit Goffer, but he has designed ReWalk, a lightweight brace suit.  Powered by rechargeable batteries, a computer drives actuation motors and motion sensors.  After proper training, the paralyzed wearer uses crutches for stability, and must focus intensely on each step, as he or she cannot feel their legs.  Still, the suit offers something a paralyzed person would otherwise never regain: the ability to stand, walk and climb stairs. 

Recently hailed by Britain’s “Hello” magazine as a real life "Bionic Woman,” Claire Lomas is an irrepressible young woman who refuses to let her injury constrain her dreams.  In the five years since the horse riding accident that broke her neck, back, and ribs, Claire has gone skydiving, learned to monoski, and returned to horseback riding.  With the aid of the ReWalk suit, she’s added one more item to her list of impressive achievements: the London Marathon.  It might have taken her sixteen days to complete the 26.2 mile course, but how many of us with normal ability manage a two-mile walk each day?

Unfortunately, even in a bionic reality created out of yesterday’s dreams, technology such as the ReWalk suit remains out of the grasp of most people.  Claire had to borrow the $70,000 suit, but as of today’s writing, her accomplishment has raised over $270,000 for Spinal Research.  So, while Claire may not work in the medical or technology fields, she is doing her part to create a better future for all of us.

To some, Science Fiction is just entertainment.  Over the years, many have derided my love for the genre by labeling it as escapist fiction.  But I think we all know, deep down, that it is much more than that.  Science Fiction allows us to dream about a better tomorrow.  Perhaps all of us cannot conceive of powerful dreams that will make their way into print, or onto TV and movie screens.  But by daring to dream, by encouraging others to dream, and by supporting the dreams of others, we can aid people like Martin Caidin, Kenneth Johnson, Claire Lomas, Amit Goffer, and all those who help transform today’s dreams into a better tomorrow. 

Still daring to dream,
Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries

Related Internet Links

In addition to "Hello" magazine, and the sources listed above, I’d also like to thank: