Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Subject is Closed

Here is a post about other people's mistakes, and, so, here's hoping that, herein, I don't make too many of my own.

I and my partner watch TV with the closed captions on, and we have done so since we have been together; so for nigh on twenty years. (The old timer in me relishes using the phrase “nigh on.”) Closed captions are a dodgy business because they are so dependent on the mostly anonymous humans doing the captioning. A person who does not have the knowledge, skill, sobriety or diligence to accurately transcribe the words that are spoken by the people on the TV screen will do a disservice to the program and to the audience.

I said mostly anonymous because captions usually, at the beginning or end of a program, admit to which organization provided them. Sometimes it is a network like CBS, or a flagship network channel like WGBH TV in Boston, a premiere station in the PBS network, or it might be a studio or the National Captioning Institute. Occasionally, a captioned program will also end with a message such as “Captioning by Brian” whoever the hell he is; but I suppose I could try to report him – or send my compliments – if I wanted to.

The United States Congress has actually mandated closed captioning for the hearing-impaired through several legislative acts between 1990 and 2010. Some older movies and TV programs are grandfathered out of the requirements, but many older programs have been captioned anyway, especially if they are being re-issued in a new format.

Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element (1997)
Sometimes the technology does not mesh very well with the medium. I have an old video tape of the movie “The Fifth Element” (1997) that has captions, but they stutter and glitch and often turn into gibberish.

The captions for different programs on TV are different in quality. A recent movie or network TV show will probably be captioned well with a minimum of mistakes. I can only speculate as to how this captioning is done. Often I suspect that some captioners actually have a copy of the script in front of them – or at least at their elbows – because they are almost impossibly accurate, as when the main character is a physician and an expert on Egyptian archaeology, and yet the captioner spells every technical term or word in a foreign language correctly.

Sometimes I have even suspected that the captioner worked so closely from the original script that they ignored the actual words spoken on the program. In other words, a word or an entire line might appear in the captions, but the actor never says those words or might even say something different. In these cases, which I noticed more in the previous decade than I have recently, I came to suspect that the script was edited before it was performed. I often had the impression that the way the line was said was better than the version in the captions. This made me admire the artistry of the team that made the program. I could actually witness them making the script better than it might have been. But it was still disconcerting.

Another possibility – that makes a great deal of economical sense – is that many of these productions could have been using computers to input, automatically, the original shooting script into the program without regard to the final production. That is to say, a computer program with very little guidance from actual humans could be doing some of the captioning. However, I have noticed this problem less in recent years, whereas I used to see it all the time. Yet I still occasionally turn to my partner after a caption says, “I’m sorry,” and I’ll say, “I did not hear anyone say that line.” So, in some cases, captioners may still be overly dependent on the original script.

Captioners are given to describing incidental noises that might be significant. Music and directions, such as “Clock ticking,” are usually put in parentheses.

I also noticed, though more in the previous decade, that when there was a song added to the soundtrack, it was sometimes wildly misidentified by the captions. I could only conclude that just as the lines were sometimes changed in the final production, the choice of music was, too.

Another problem with music is that captioners may or may not be given leeway in describing it. Professionally produced network shows will simply use the accurate caption, “(Green Day “Good Riddance/Time of Your Life” playing).” In situations where the music is not borrowed from an outside source, the captions might say (“Theme music”). 

In some cases, it can be all too obvious that a human being is in charge of the captions, and the results can be embarrassing. One of the most outrageous things I ever saw in captioning occurred back about 2001 when I was watching the local news. As the news reader, a pretty young woman named Stephanie, began the program, “Good evening, I’m Stephanie ____ ,” the captions read, “I’m sucka fool Steph.”

Now, my first thought was that a local captioner (obviously an actual person), was impugning Stephanie’s honor, so to speak, but then I realized that the captioner had meant to say, “such a fool” not “sucka fool.” So the fool was supposed to be Stephanie and not whoever might be in receipt of her sexual favors.

I never knew the outcome of this prank, but I wondered whether the station monitored their own captions. Did they know instantly what had happened, or did they rely on the hearing-impaired to call in to complain? Did the prankster get away with it, or was he or she fired. (Call me sexist, but I would have laid odds that the captioner was a woman.) The other question in my mind to this day is whether that captioner was sober or not. (Go back to my opening paragraph; I did mention sobriety as a desirable quality in captioners.)

Most captioning mistakes are less deliberate and not so mean-spirited, but attention to detail is so important that when the captioner is less than competent or just overworked, mistakes can be made and often are. Even the dedicated captioner can make a mistake. I recently saw an episode of the old BBC series “MI-5” in which a character said, “What do you have on Dick Maynard? Would you have any trace that he and Lermov did business together?” The otherwise admirably competent captioner substituted “Maynard” for “Lermov” so that the hearing-impaired are left to wonder whether the character is seeking confirmation that Mr. Maynard ever did business with himself.

Matthew Macfadyen, Hugh Laurie and Peter Firth in the scene from the BBC series "MI-5," from the episode "The Rose Bed Memoirs" in which the line mentioned above was incorrectly transcribed.

When programs or movies are farmed out to crews of captioners – or however this is done – things can get dicey very quickly. One of the aspects that amuses Susan and I is the way that captioners describe the incidental or background music. “Pensive music” is not unheard of to captioners even if it is not readily conceivable to the rest of us. But who is to say whether instrumental background music is “pensive” or “mysterious” or “tense” or “restless”? I once watched a British documentary series in which each episode began with the same theme music, which one captioner described as “majestic” another as “tragic” and another as something else. The profoundly deaf person might wonder whether or not each episode opened with different music. This underscores the fact that many programs that have human captioners are dividing the episodes among a team of captioners. I do not know how this is organized, but I have reason to imagine them captioning on a rotating basis or each captioner being given several episodes in a row to caption.

Jock Mahoney and X Brands in "Yancy Derringer" (1958).

The reason why I suspect the first strategy, at least in some cases, is that, while watching the old TV series “Yancy Derringer,” I noticed that each captioner had a different description of the opening theme music. Some said it was “folksy music” others called it a “western theme” and others describe it as “dramatic.” But one described it as “waltz music.” When I saw that, I had an impulse to kiss the captioner for recognizing accurately, I believe, what the theme music to that show is. Confusion is somewhat understandable because the theme starts out with a bold flourish that might well be described as “dramatic,” but it quickly turns into something very like a waltz (if it is not one technically; I do not pretend to be an expert on music by any means).

Anyway, the captioner who describes the theme as a waltz is not a one-off. He or she comes around again to caption every few episodes; but I have not checked to see how often or how regularly the "waltz captioner" comes around.

Some of the worst captioning I have seen is on the soap opera “Dark Shadows.” Originally, of course, this 1960s daytime serial did not have captions, but, unlike the overwhelming majority of such programs, nearly all of its episodes were preserved in some form, either on original master tapes or as black and white kinescopes. Years later, selected episodes were sold in sets of video tapes, and later on DVDs. Today, all 1225 episodes are available on DVD as well as streaming internet video.

Obviously, someone hired a crew of captioners to cover all 1225 episodes. As you might imagine, this monumental task was in danger from the start of being riddled with errors. But being incapable of listening carefully and thinking clearly makes mistakes more likely. In one episode of "Dark Shadows," the character Professor Stokes repeatedly and clearly says "Coptic cross," but the captioner persists in "correcting" this to "Celtic cross." (The cross in question is an ankh; certainly not a Celtic cross.)

I have noticed that one captioner for "Dark Shadows," who always describes the opening theme as “eerie music,” also seems to make more mistakes than the other captioners. I had this impression immediately after watching episode 773, which seems to contain an awful lot of mistakes. Twenty-one episodes later (episode 794), another high rate of errors made me suspicious that the same captioner who botched episode 773 was at it again. Tellingly, the captioner in both of these episodes describes the opening theme as “eerie music.” (The captioner of episode 795 has “ominous music” and the one who did episode 796 has “dark mysterious music.”)

To prove this, I watched episodes 773 and 794 and counted the number of errors. I identified the incorrect transcriptions of parts of twenty lines in each of these episodes. More in the latter episode if you count the multiple times that the same character’s name was incorrectly transcribed. In contrast, episode 796 has only ten such errors. (A few of them are doozies, but, still, there are half as many mistakes.)

Some of the more amusing examples follow.


From episode 773:

“I shouldn’t like you to think ill of me” somehow made sense to the captioner as “I shouldn’t like you to think hell of me.”

“I didn’t have the foresight to bring a gun” was turned by the captioner into “I didn’t have the force, I had to bring a gun.”

Evan Hanley threatens Rachel with the words, “I can get rougher.” This was transcribed as “Shall I make it proper?”

As he leaves Rachel alone, locked in her room, Hanley assures her that she will not be alone “for long,” but the captioner transcribes this as “Hold on.”

“Shaw is violent” became “I’m sure he’s violent.”

“When you tear it up” became “When you tear it out.”

File:794 B.jpg

From episode 794:

The name of the character Quentin is consistently misspelled “Quinton.” I only count this once.

Mr. Fenn-Gibbon is called “Sangivens.”

“Both black and white" is rendered “so black and white.”

“Ceremonial rites” is transcribed as “ceremonial rights.” Sorry, I am including misspellings here.

In what is perhaps the funniest mistake in this episode, the villain Fenn-Gibbon gloats, “He’s convinced that I’m a member of the English aristocracy.” The captioner has, “He’s convinced that I’m a member of the English heretics.”

Magda Rakosi is consistently called “Magda La Corti” in the captions. Her husband is robbed of the first syllable of their surname – and possibly of his manhood, as well – when he is called “Tandora Corti.” His name is “Sandor Rakosi.”

A couple of lines are admittedly hard or impossible to hear, but “One small failure doesn’t mean defeat for me” ends up in the caption as “Once more say it doesn’t mean defeat for me.”

“I’m of King Johnny Romano’s tribe” becomes “I’m of King John Iramano’s tribe.” Spelling Phonetically can be treacherous.

“That is enough” strangely becomes “Better than nothing.”


From episode 796 (A different captioner; with fewer mistakes, but some really bad ones):

This captioner gets all of the character’s names right, but...

“Why must I?” becomes “Why mister?”

“Shall I begin to choke again?” becomes “Shall I begin to joke again?”

“Oh, yes, how brave you and that Magda were” gets to be “Oh, yes, how brave you and that man that work.”

“Some men like to live in doubt” is turned into “Some men like to live in dust.”

The word “not” is left out of the line “That might not work.” What a difference a “not” makes.

“Shan’t” is rendered “shalln’t,” which isn’t a word.

“God” and “gods” are rendered “guard” and “guards” more than once. “Gods” is correctly used only once. As I say, this captioner has fewer mistakes, but when they are made, they are doozies.

Post Script: I see two objections to my thesis, one perhaps corollary to the other. My sampling only three episodes is not enough. Also, "eerie music" is such an obvious description of the "Dark Shadows" theme that it turns up often, albeit not always alone. Episode 801 has both "waves crashing" and "eerie music" while 804 has "crashing waves" and "eerie music." In between, 803 has simply "eerie music," but I have not counted the mistakes in these episodes - though I did notice in passing that there are some. Also in passing, I hardly noticed any mistakes in episode 810 even though it labels the opening theme "eerie music."

On the other hand, "eerie music" episodes 808 and 809 contain some colossal errors, though I did not count them up. For example, in 808, "I'll do the hoochie coo" becomes "Under the hoochi coo" and "Tarara Boom-de-ay" becomes "sararaboomdeay." This leads me to wonder whether or not I am criticizing a captioner who was losing his or her hearing at the time. How else can one hear a "t" as an "s"? Obviously, one can't, and against the likelihood of a keyboard mistake, it seems significant that "t" and "s" are four keys apart and in separate rows, on a standard keyboard at least.

My favorite error is from episode 809 where the captioner not only rendered the name "Tessie" as "Chelsea" but "Count Petofi" as "Count of Toffee."

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

My movie review rejected by IMDb

Polemical film provides insights if not all answers

"Death of a Nation" is the third Dinesh D'Souza movie I've seen. I have not read any of the books that go with his movies, so maybe the books answer the questions I still have after seeing this film. This installment covers the same polemical ground as D'Souza's earlier films. I find "Hillary's America" the best because D'Souza discusses how his stint in federal prison affected his political thinking. Since most conservative filmmakers have not been thrown in jail (yet), who but D'Souza could have made that movie?

Andrew jackson head.jpg
Andrew Jackson was the first Democratic Party president of the United States. He was a
slave-owner whose racism extended to both African-Americans and Native Americans.

This movie looks at developments since the 2016 election but otherwise elaborates D'Souza's established thesis that while the contemporary left likes to accuse conservatives and Republicans of being fascists and racists, turnabout is fair play. While this understandably exasperates and infuriates leftists, D'Souza has a point. The only problem is that there is a step missing from his argument, or so it seems to me.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Harris & Ewing bw photo portrait, 1919.jpg
Woodrow Wilson was the first Progressive Democratic president. He
was also arguably one of the most racist occupants of the White House.

D'Souza nevertheless makes a case that the common interpretation of the ideological environment in which we find ourselves - as presented by most of our pundits and academics - does not make sense of many facts. After all, the Democratic Party was, for more than a century, the party of slavery and Jim Crow. Northern Democrats first placated the slave-owning states and then placated Southern Democrats - or "Dixiecrats", who advocated discriminatory laws - well into the administration of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to see a sizable shift in African-American voting from
Republican to Democratic, yet he placated "Dixiecrats" in their practice of Jim Crow discrimination laws.

What D'Souza does well is demonstrate parallels between the Democratic Party's early malevolent paternalism toward racial minorities and its present day paternalism of "the soft bigotry of low expectations". But how did the one evolve into the other, especially considering that the pathway between the two presumably was paved with good intentions? (D'Souza would rightly say that bad outcomes are not made right by good intentions, but an acknowledgement of the existence of those intentions somewhere in the mix would help explain how the transformation went wrong.)

Eleanor Roosevelt at United Nations in Paris - NARA - 195965.jpg
Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the Roosevelt administration, advocated equal treatment
of African-Americans even while her husband, the president, was backward-thinking.

As D'Souza also noted in "Hillary's America", African-Americans began to convert from Republican to Democrat in the 1930s not because Republicans became more racist or because Democrats turned more tolerant but because the Democratic Party had such a lock on the economy and jobs during the Depression that African-Americans had to hope that becoming Democrats might change the attitudes toward them by America in general and the Democratic Party in particular.The Democratic Party has pushed a narrative that a shift occurred in the 1968 presidential election whereby racist Democrats moved into the Republican column and the Democratic Party became ideologically pure on race and purportedly remains so to this day. D'Souza vigorously disputes this claim, and the 1968 election results disprove the myth of the so-called Southern Strategy whereby candidate Richard Nixon supposedly dog-whistled about racism when he campaigned for "law and order" and won the South. (That narrative was presented as fact 2 September 2018 on a CBS News program.)

Lyndon Johnson was Democratic president from 1963 to 1969. In the 1950s, as a U.S. senator
from Texas, he had strongly opposed civil rights legislation but pushed through such legislation as president.

What Nixon achieved in 1968 was more of a "Sun Belt" Strategy in states that included Florida, some of the northerly Southern and border states such as Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as western states like Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Nixon did not win the Deep South: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas gave former Alabama Governor George Wallace nearly ten million popular votes and 46 Electoral votes. The main-stream Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey, won Texas as well as Maryland and West Virginia. (If Wallace's voters had voted traditionally Democratic, Humphrey would have won the popular vote, if not the Electoral College, by a wide margin.)

H Humphrey.jpg
Hubert H. Humphrey was a U.S. senator, vice-president and candidate for president. He
was among the northern Democrats who tried to push the party toward a civil rights agenda.

The Deep South's objection to Humphrey and Nixon was that both were too liberal on racial issues. From their perspective, they were right: Nixon promoted affirmative action even more than his Democratic predecessors had.

George C Wallace (Alabama Governor).png
George C. Wallace, Democratic governor of Alabama, became nationally known for his opposition to desegregation.
He was American Independent Party candidate in 1968, winning five Deep South states and 46 Electoral votes.

Since 1972 - not 1968 - in eight out of twelve presidential elections, the Republican candidate has swept the five Deep South states that Wallace won, but in the other four elections, the Democratic and Republican candidates have split these states between them. [Suggesting, perhaps, that the Deep South has become less monolithic.]

Similarly, D'Souza attacks the myth that Southern Democrats who held federal office in the 1960s migrated en masse into the Republican fold. As D'Souza points out, only two did: one representative and one senator.

J. Strom Thurmond was the only U.S. senator to switch from Democratic to Republican in the 1960s.

D'Souza also shows the parallels between the progressive movement in the early twentieth century United States and the rise of fascism in Europe at the same time. (Progressivism was largely an import from Europe in the first place while fascism followed and was dependent on the rise of socialism.) The early twentieth century progressive movement admired Adolf Hitler and his fellow fascist Benito Mussolini who in turn thought that Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was in tune with their own programs for national economic development. The Nazis' anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws were directly based on the Democratic South's Jim Crow Laws. (D'Souza points out the irony that the Nazis considered the Jim Crow Laws too racist and could not bring themselves to emulate the "one drop of blood" doctrine in determining who was a Jew.)

Margaret Sanger, a progressive and advocate of eugenics, worked to get forced sterilization
laws passed in the United States. These laws were copied by Nazi Germany in 1933.

When D'Souza says that Adolf Hitler was "a man of the left", what he means is not that the dictator was a liberal, but that he was an extreme leftist with more in common with Communist Joseph Stalin than liberal Democrat Harry Truman. While the Brown Shirts did beat up and kill communists, as D'Souza points out, Nazis also recruited communists whenever possible, regarding them as good socialists, only misguided toward internationalism rather than nationalism. (Another point that would have supported D'Souza's thesis, had he made it.)

Mussolini biografia.jpg
Italian fascist dictator Benitio Mussolini openly admired President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal
and welcomed officials of the Roosevelt administration who came to Italy in search of new ideas.

Today's left has not only taken over the Democratic Party but some have embraced an antipathy to natural rights that would have spun the heads of liberals a generation ago. Some on the left have adopted a position that is indistinguishable from fascism, though presented as anti-fascist. D'Souza shows that the self-styled antifascist group Antifa (the name is a shortening of "Anti-Fascist") has both superficial and substantial similarities to Fascist Italy's thugs, the Black Shirts, as well as the Brown Shirts of Nazi Germany. Like them, the black-clad cadre of Antifa shouts down and physically assaults people they disagree with in order to enforce ideological conformity.

The victors of World War II: From left to right, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee (who had just replaced Winston Churchill), U.S. President Harry S Truman and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. When D'Souza says that Adolf Hitler
was "a man of the left", he means he was a radical socialist like Stalin, not a liberal Democrat like Truman.

Many groups on the left advocate a strain of the same racial identitarianism - the belief that race or ethnicity is the most important part of one's identity and that solidarity with one's ethnic group is the paramount goal - that animates the other group that has become newsworthy since 2016: the alt-right. What distinguishes the left is that they regard identitarianism as something to be promoted only among non-whites and others "privileged" to be designated as among the oppressed (reverse privilege-ism?), while whites are supposed to identify themselves as oppressors. (An "appeal" of the predominantly white group Antifa is that they can prove their solidarity with the oppressed by attacking other whites.)

To support his argument that the alt-right - the name actually means "alternative (to the) right" - has little in common with the American conservative right and is more like the National Socialists (Nazis) and Communists, D'Souza interviews alt-right leader Richard Spencer who explains that he does not respect the American Founding and does not believe in free speech or other natural rights. Rights, he tells D'Souza, come from the collective, the community of those with a common identity. He is not only in favor of ending illegal immigration; he also wants to "allow" naturalized citizens like D'Souza to "go back where you came from."

Selected items from IMDb's submission guidelines:

"Resist the temptation to review on [sic] the other reviews or features visible on the page."

I mention that not because I did it in my review - I did not - but because reviewers on IMDb do that all the time, including on this title, and I know this because IMDb did not reject their reviews.

"We respectfully request that you refrain from including the following in your review:

".... Time-sensitive material (i.e. [sic] mentions of events, promotional tours, seminars, lectures, etc.)."

Not sure if I am supposed to have violated this guideline by mentioning a broadcast on CBS. That isn't really time sensitive if CBS keeps a record of its broadcasts, which might be accessed at any time in the future.

"Avoid unannounced spoilers! Please don't reveal crucial plot elements, [sic] if you include spoilers without warning readers in advance, your review may be subject to removal. To label a spoiler [sic] make sure you check the 'contains spoilers' checkbox. ..."

Here is IMDb's definition of a spoiler:

"A spoiler is usually defined as a remark or piece of information which reveals important plot elements (for example the ending or a major plot twist), thus 'spoiling' a surprise and robbing the viewer of the suspense and enjoyment of the film."

I mention this guideline because I did not mark my review as containing spoilers because I do not think that it makes any sense at all for people to regard information in a documentary as spoil-able. "Crucial plot elements" exist only in fictional stories, or perhaps in historical dramatizations (The Allies won World War II!) or even in reality shows since those are often quasi-scripted. A true documentary such as a D'Souza or Michael Moore film does not have a "plot" even if it has been scripted, and it cannot be spoiled. I suggested to my partner that people actually do put "contains spoilers" warnings on their reviews of documentaries, and she thought the idea so ludicrous that she laughed until she wept.

"Do not include personal opinions on real life events or subject matter on which a film is based."

I would submit that I did not do this, but someone who disagreed with the facts might demur. I believe that people whose reviews were already published may have violated this guideline even while I did not. Most of what I said in the way of opinion is that of D'Souza, not me. His opinion is what the movie is about. Where I bolstered his opinions, it was with facts not opinions. And if I am not allowed any opinion about the truth or falsehood, strength or weakness of the filmmaker's message, then what is a review for?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Musings About "Dark Shadows," the Supernatural Soap Opera, Its Original Heroine, Victoria Winters, and the Actress Who Played Her, Alexandra Moltke Isles

On the day before Halloween 1967, having come home from school and turned on the television just to see what was on, I accidentally came across my first episode of the Gothic/supernatural soap opera “Dark Shadows.” It was during the episode’s final minute, so this is all that I saw:

352 dark shadows carolyn portrait

A beautiful blonde descends a staircase in silence while spooky music plays in the background. At the bottom of the stairs, she stops in front of the portrait of a stern-faced man who appears to be from another time. Gazing at the portrait, she loosens the scarf around her neck to reveal two little puncture marks – then and now the universal depiction of someone who has been bitten by a vampire. The music reaches a climax and we cut to commercials. When we come back from commercials, we see the closing credits. The haunting theremin theme music by Robert Cobert comes in and does its woowoo magic. (Theme from "Dark Shadows")

From “TV Guide,” I found out that what I had been watching was “Dark Shadows.” I made a point of tuning in early enough the next day to watch a whole episode. Over the next three years, I would be a regular viewer, and I got my sister and next door neighbor hooked, but I lost interest in the show when I went away to college in 1970. First aired in the United States over the ABC television network from 1966 to 1971, DS – as “Dark Shadows” fans tend to call it – lived on in syndication during the 1970s, then on various cable networks – prominently SciFi (now Syfy) – and then, with the advent of streaming video, it has been available at various times on Netflix, Hulu, and, currently, Amazon Prime.

Etherwave Theremin Kit.jpg
A theremin is an electronic instrument,
suitable for making eerie melodies like the
theme music of the sixties soap "Dark Shadows"

Many soap operas from the 1960s are no longer available, their episodes often lost, their video tapes recorded over; yet almost all “Dark Shadows” episodes remain available, although not quite in mint condition. Some of the color episodes from after the show’s first color broadcast in August 1967 are available only in black and white copies. One episode is available only in audio format. But, almost miraculously, every episode has been accounted for, all 1225 of them.

A blogger named Danny Horn BTW publishes an excellent blog darkshadowseveryday.com in which he picks up where the show got really vampiry in episode 210 and continues to write insightfully about every episode thereafter until the series’ bitter end. There are also many websites dedicated to the show, notably darkshadows.wikia.com, and there is more than one DS interest group on Facebook.

Victoria Winters takes a train to Maine in the first episode of "Dark Shadows"

Before I began watching DS, the series had been going on for more than a year. Having missed those early episodes back in the day, I have since caught up on Amazon Prime. The series began as a deliberate parody of the Gothic genre exemplified by the classic novels “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte and “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, both of which are about a young woman hired to be a governess to the child or children of a widower at a mansion in a remote area. “Dark Shadows” begins with a train moving through the night and a young woman on that train who is journeying from New York to the fictional town of Collinsport, Maine. Collinsport is a seaside town that is said to be fifty miles from Bangor. Collinsport’s industries are tourism, fishing and the canning of sardines. The Collins family owns the fleet and the cannery as well as a vast property called Collinwood. Collinses have been in the area since the late 1600s and originally were shipbuilders.

[Personal note: According to my older brother, Brian, the family historian, the wealth of some of my New Hampshire ancestors was made by shipbuilding, much as the fictional Collins family’s wealth was made.]

The foyer of the Collins Mansion featuring the staircase that I saw
the first time I watched "Dark Shadows" on 30 October 1967

The young woman on the train to Maine is named Victoria Winters, an orphan who grew up in a New York foundling home. She is somewhere around 20 and is mystified as to why, out of the blue, she was offered the job of governess at Collinwood. She has never met any of the Collinses, yet she is invited to move into the mansion and teach David Collins, the nine-year-old nephew of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the matriarch of the Collins family. Over the course of Vicki’s stay at Collinwood during the next two-plus years, her questions about why she was hired are never really answered. Indeed, producer Dan Curtis and writer Art Wallace came up with a changing back-story to explain why she was hired and what secret connection she had to the Collins family, but, as the story unfolded, the narrative got further and further away from ever explaining any of that. Something else intervened.

Illustration by F.H. Townsend from the novel "Jane Eyre,"
which was written by Charlotte Bronte and published in 1847

“Dark Shadows” started as a parody of “Jane Eyre” with an emphasis on Gothic mystery, but Curtis was also influenced by “The Turn of the Screw,” a more supernatural novel about a governess who discovers that the mansion where she works is haunted and that her charges are in danger from it. From the very first episode of DS, ghosts are spoken of, but it is not until episode 52 that the viewer finally sees evidence that ghosts are real in the DS universe. Then, in episode 70, a ghost actually appears. After many months of this, however, the ratings for DS were tanking and ABC told Curtis he had six months to improve them or else his show would be cancelled. Rather than despair, Curtis made a daring decision. He had always wanted to do a show about vampires, witches and werewolves, and since he now had nothing to lose, there was no reason not to turn DS into just such a show. However, his early effort to introduce an undead sorceress, Laura Murdoch Collins, was only modestly successful. This was followed by a dual plot. Jason McGuire, a ne’er-do-well from Elizabeth’s past, shows up to blackmail Elizabeth out of her wealth. Shortly thereafter, long-lost-cousin Barnabas Collins turns up and offers to restore the Old House at his own expense if only he can be permitted to live there rent-free.

264 dark shadows accuser
Vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) and psychological vampire Jason McGuire
(Dennis Patrick) confront each other in episode 264 of "Dark Shadows" 

While the Jason McGuire plot becomes tiresome, it develops that Barnabas and Jason are two sides of the same coin: Barnabas is an actual vampire, serially sucking the blood and will out of women, while Jason is a psychological vampire, sucking the wealth and will out of Elizabeth. Jason’s narrative came to an end after a few months, but while Barnabas was originally supposed to be slain by someone after a thirteen week arc, both ABC and Curtis noticed that the ratings were skyrocketing and research showed that Barnabas was the reason for it. Significantly, the show was no longer about Victoria Winters. It had come to be all about Barnabas. He was now the lead character.

The opening image of "Dark Shadows" was always backed by an eerie melody, which was composed by Robert Cobert and played on an electronic instrument called a theremin (see above), which had been patented in 1928 by Leon Theremin.

Things began to change. During the first 270 episodes, each installment began with Victoria Winters as narrator: “My name is Victoria Winters.” Then, Nancy Barrett (the actress who played that blonde I first saw descending the staircase and revealing the little holes in her neck) did an opening narration. Soon thereafter, other cast members began to share opening narration duties. The actress who played Victoria Winters, Alexandra Moltke (aka, Alexandra Moltke Isles), continued to narrate some openings, but she no longer identified herself as Victoria Winters. The narrator was no longer in character but a neutral voice. Eventually, Moltke got married, became pregnant, and left the show. Curtis actually sent Lela Swift, one of the show's directors who had a good rapport with Moltke, to beg her to return. But the young actress wanted her role to be made more interesting and challenging, and this was just not to be. She was replaced by two actresses in quick succession, and the character was subsequently killed off without ever resolving her orphan’s quest for family and identity.

 Many DS fans will say that they never cared for Alexandra Moltke Isles. She is not a great actress, though perhaps not as bad as her detractors say. True, a chief talent seems to be shifting her eyes to the left and leaving them there at the end of a scene where something significant had been revealed. She is a pretty good screamer, too, which is needed on a show of this type. Once, when Barnabas came up behind her and touched her neck, I thought that her startled response was very believable. (Of course, for all I know, the actor who played Barnabas, Jonathan Frid, had dipped his fingers in ice water before approaching her.)

In any case, I was a fan of Isles', and no one can deny that she is very beautiful. She was also dedicated to doing her best. Apparently extremely myopic, she wouldn’t wear contact lenses and so made sure to memorize her lines thoroughly, while everyone else relied on the TelePrompTer.

Alexandra Moltke Isles has been an actress and a film director;
and she figured in the '80s scandal that involved Claus von Bulow

I was shocked by Moltke’s sudden departure from the show. Adding insult to injury, the two new Victoria Winters were not only not as beautiful as Moltke, but neither could act any better. I actually wrote to the show asking what happened to Moltke. I received a form letter thanking me for watching, but it did not answer my question. That is one of the differences between the late 1960s and today. Back then, if it did not occur to you to read soap opera gossip magazines, you were not apt to find out anything about the cast changes. Maybe even if you did read the magazines you would not have found out the real scoop on such changes. Today, on the other hand, you can google any actor or television series and find out what is going on behind the scenes. In 1968, I had no idea that Moltke had married or become pregnant or that she was dissatisfied with her role on the show.

The character Victoria Winters and the original actress who played her forever constitute a contradiction. Vicki is an orphan who knows nothing about her family tree. She comes to be obsessed with the Collins family genealogy, vicariously adopting the family she never had. Somehow, the poor little orphan girl nevertheless fits in at Collinwood as if to the manner born, never mind the frumpy sweaters they try to dress her in. A girl who grew up in a New York foundling home probably would have picked up a local accent even if it was not one tied to a particular borough. Instead, Vicki sounds as if she has attended exclusive boarding and/or finishing schools (as Alexandra, in fact, has). Her posture and carriage are as elegant as her speech. The only criticism is that her voice cracks and squeaks sometimes, but even this seems to improve as the series goes on, as if she has been taking voice lessons while on the job.

Vicki Winters in her frumpiest sweater that, nevertheless, cannot hide her grace. The painting is
supposedly of a Collins family servant from the 1940s who bears a striking resemblance to Vicki.

Further, Moltke’s coloring and build more closely resembles that of Collins matriarch Elizabeth, who is played by veteran movie actress Joan Bennett. The first day on the set, Bennett told Moltke that at first glance she thought that the young actress was her own daughter, so close was the resemblance. Moltke probably should have played Elizabeth’s daughter, Carolyn (the character I first saw with the vampire fang marks in her neck), because blonde Nancy Barrett, who does play Carolyn, was a congenital Southern belle (born in Louisiana and raised in Oklahoma) who often made Carolyn edge toward Scarlet O’Hara rather than a New Englander with at least a modicum of reserve. Her Carolyn is all over the place and seemingly crawling into the lap of every man who pays her a compliment. This inconsistency in casting is now sealed for posterity and cannot be any other way, but the inconsistency is there for anyone to contemplate.

Carolyn denies what Joe said about her mother ep33.jpg
Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett) with her mother, Elizabeth
Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett); Vicki Winters in the background

Alexandra Moltke Isles, far from being like the orphan she portrayed on DS, is more like the Collinses than the Collinses ever could be. She comes from an old European family that traces back to a thirteenth century knight. She is the daughter of a Danish count and the granddaughter of the Danish foreign minister during the mid-1920s. This grandfather married an American descendant of William Rensselaer, one of early America's wealthiest men and founder of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. So Moltke has roots in the American aristocracy, too. Her great-great-grandfather was a highly influential member of the royal court of Denmark in the eighteenth century. The Moltke family has many branches and many illustrious members in Germany and Denmark. Her German cousins include three Helmuth von Moltkes: two generals as well as an intelligence officer who was executed by the Nazis for plotting against Hitler. One of the generals, known as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, was an important figure in military history. You know how some people make fun of the French army? It is now difficult to imagine that no one made fun of the French military until Moltke humiliated them in 1871. Their reputation simply never recovered. An interesting historical note: Helmuth von Moltke the Elder is known to be the most ancient person ever to have had his voice recorded. He was born in 1800 and, in 1889, two years before his death, he spoke into one of Thomas Edison’s phonographs, reading the poetry of Shakespeare and Goethe into the device.
Helmuth James von Moltke, 1907 - 1945, one of
the leaders of the resistance against the Nazis 
for which he was executed on 23 January 1945

Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke.jpg
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, 1800 - 1891,
Field Marshal, Chief of German General Staff,
victor of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)

Since leaving the acting profession, Alexandra Isles has become a noted documentary film director (perhaps notably The Power of Conscience: The Danish Resistance and Rescue of the Jews), but she also attracted some notoriety during the 1980s as a figure and witness in the von Bulow attempted murder case.

What is the appeal of "Dark Shadows"? While it is true that when DS is bad, it can be as bad as any soap opera can be, with awful exposition during which the actors endlessly tell each other what has happened in the past ten episodes so that the audience will be caught up, but there are also moments of brilliant writing, clever plot twists, unforgettable characters, and even great acting. Sometimes the humor is actually intentional, as when Elizabeth tries to broach a deep, dark family secret: "There is something that I should have told you a long time ago." And Carolyn hopes out loud that her mother is not about to tell her "about the birds and the bees." Then there are the bloopers. To give some of the best examples, there is an instance, worth remembering by its episode number (239), in which two actors were surprised by the camera while they were studying the script. David Ford, the actor holding the script, quickly put it behind his back. Very possibly, some viewers missed it. Suspension of disbelief can work wonders.

239 dark shadows script conference 1
The camera caught actors David Ford and Jonathan Frid reading the script on the set in the middle of
"Dark Shadows" episode 239. Believe it or not, the actor on far the left, Joel Crothers, started to say
his lines first, apparently aware before his colleagues were that the light of the camera had blinked on.

On another occasion, episode 312, Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds) is in a cemetery when he remarks, "Several of my incestors - incestors? - my ancestors are buried here." Edmonds lightly laughs off the gaff with professional aplomb and continues right along, but I could not stop laughing when I first watched the scene, and I am laughing as I write this.

313 dark shadows caretaker joe roger
Daniel Keyes as the eccentric caretaker of Eagle Hill Cemetery tries to dissuade fellow actors
Joel Crothers (center) and Louis Edmonds from visiting the Collins family "incestors."

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Did Kennedy Misspeak When He Said, “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”?

The urban legend is that in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy spoke in front of the Berlin Wall to the residents of a city both divided in two and surrounded by hostile forces, he made a big mistake. After telling them in English that the Free World stood in solidarity with them and empathized with their plight, he  said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which could be translated as “I am a Berliner,” that is, a citizen of Berlin.

File:Ich bin ein Berliner Speech (June 26, 1963) John Fitzgerald Kennedy trimmed.theora.ogv

 The misunderstood rule here is that in German, ordinarily, to say that I am a citizen of a particular city or the practitioner of a certain occupation, one says, “Ich bin Berliner” (I am a Berliner) without the indefinite article “ein” (a or an) or “Ich bin Schauspieler” (I am an actor) again not using the indefinite article. Incidentally, this doesn’t apply to other identifications such as, “Ich bin ein Mann,” meaning, in a word-for-word translation into English, “I am a man.”

The trouble is that there are exceptions to this rule. It is acceptable to use “ein” with citizenship or occupation if there is something special or peculiar about the identification. In the case of Kennedy, the peculiarity is that he is not saying that he is literally a citizen of Berlin. Rather he is saying that he is metaphorically, almost spiritually, a citizen of Berlin. Indeed, in Kennedy’s metaphor, to be “a Berliner” is to be a citizen of the Free World.

Actor Eddie Izzard

Eddie Izzard is a British actor and stand-up comic who is among the many who have put about the story of Kennedy’s supposed blunder. (Purveyors of the canard include “The New York Times” and many other notable English-language newspapers, magazines and books.)  “In German,” Izzard has told audiences,  “a ‘Berliner’  is a jelly donut. So the crowd thought he was saying, ‘I’m a jelly donut’.”

Now, Izzard has played a German in a movie (“Valkyrie”), but his knowledge of German is actually negligible (though he does seem to speak conversational French serviceably well), so he compounds his mistake because only Germans outside of Berlin call any pastry a “Berliner.” Berliners themselves call the pastry that elsewhere bears their name, “Pfannkuchen.” My point being that Izzard does not know what Kennedy’s audience was thinking when they heard him say that famous and deceptively simple German sentence. 

We could use Izzard himself to illustrate the exception to the rule about the indefinite article “ein.” Izzard once starred in a short-lived television series called “The Riches” in which he played the role of a confidence man named Wayne Malloy. So we could say in German: 

“Eddie Izzard ist Schauspieler [without the article “ein”], aber Wayne Malloy ist ein Schauspieler [with the article “ein”].” 


“Eddie Izzard is an actor, but Wayne Malloy is A KIND OF an actor,” because a conman is an actor but only in a peculiar sense. 

This is the subtle shade of meaning that the use of the word “ein” can bring to the table. Kennedy was not saying that he was literally a citizen of Berlin. He was saying that he was METAPHORICALLY a Berliner, in the sense that he stood in solidarity with the people of Berlin. By the same token, Izzard really is an actor, but the character he once portrayed is an actor only in that he is a phony, and all phonies are SORT OF actors. 

Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F057884-0009, Willy Brandt.jpg
Willy Brandt, Mayor of West Berlin in 1963

Those who have spread the urban legend of Kennedy’s error have neglected to sayand probably do not knowthat the American president rehearsed his speech privately with Willy Brandt, the mayor of West Berlin. I do not know, but perhaps it was Brandt who suggested changing “Ich bin Berliner” to “Ich bin ein Berliner.” After all, he did not want people in the crowd turning to one another and saying, “Do you hear? The president of the United States must be out of his mind, because he thinks he is literally a citizen of Berlin!”

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Modern Idea of Christmas

Prince Albert (1819-1861)
probably did not really intro-
duce Christmas trees to England
“Between them, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens invented the modern Christmas.” 
- Mark Steyn

Queen Victoria & Prince
Albert Christmas 1848
Perhaps Steyn’s reference to the Prince Consort of Great Britain in the mid-nineteenth century has to do with the legend that Albert introduced the Christmas tree to England. Whether or not he did, the Yule tree certainly seems to have come to English-speaking countries in the mid-nineteenth century, a vague enough time period to suggest that Prince Albert, who stood beside Queen Victoria from 1840 until his death in 1861, could have introduced it from his native Germany (the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg, actually).

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is another matter. As Steyn points out, Christmas in the medieval period had been a bacchanalia featuring the English spending twelve days “face down in the wassail.” Then the dictator Oliver Cromwell outlawed this celebration of Christmas and, evidently, it never quite came back in all of its besotted glory. However, it was Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – said to have been written in a two-week period around Christmas 1843 – that defined Christmas as being all about family and charity, even though these were already considered to be Christian values. One is supposed to double-down on them at Christmastime thanks to Dickens’ tale of redemption.

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper.jpg
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)
Outlawed Christmas from 1653 to 1658

Scrooge with Marley's Ghost,
illustration by John Leech, 1843

Monday, December 11, 2017

Are Italians able to understand Spanish better than the Spanish understand Italian?

Philip Rosheger
Andrés Segovia

The late American classical guitarist Philip Rosheger spoke fluent Spanish, having studied classical guitar in Spain under the late, great Andrés Segovia. Philip once told me that one of the more annoying experiences of his life was trying to check into an Italian hotel, because the desk clerks refused to understand Spanish even though Philip was sure that they could because his own impression was that he could understand at least some Italian. I always wondered to what extent he was being reasonable in this. After all, perhaps the Italian clerks genuinely could not understand Spanish.

According to the prolific Youtube podcaster known only as Metatron, Philip was on to something. Indeed, Metatron insists that it is easier for Italians to understand Spanish than for Spanish-speakers to understand Italian. If anything, Philip’s fluency in English as well as Spanish probably made it easier for him than for monolingual Spanish-speakers to understand Italian. I will explain these points below, but let me first highlight Metatron’s credentials.

Metatron is an Italian man in his thirties who teaches English. He speaks fluent English with a notably colloquial English accent, having lived for several years in the United Kingdom. He has also lived among the French and the Japanese and speaks their languages, and he knows a little bit about a number of other languages. His resume is impressive if not necessarily relevant to the subject at hand. He is a veteran of the Italian navy, plays piano, and is an avid re-enactor who is knowledgeable about ancient and medieval European and Japanese history. He practices martial arts although he will admit that he is not a master. His several hundred podcasts on YouTube reflect all of these interests.

In the following notes, I will summarize (and occasionally expand upon) some of the points that Metatron has made in the YouTube video to which I have linked above; so I recommend that you view it if you have not done so already. Notice that he says that where Italian is less similar to Spanish, it sometimes has cognates with English, which is why I suggest that Philip Rosheger might have had an easier time understanding Italian than the mono-lingual Spanish-speaker.

“Comprendo” and “entiendo” in Spanish are understandable to an Italian, but Italian-speakers usually say “capisco” meaning “I understand.” This word is not understandable to a monolingual Spanish-speaker, but might be understandable to an American familiar with the often phoneticized word “capish,” which was and often still is used by Italian-Americans. It comes from the Italian “tu capisce” meaning “do you understand?”

Italians are apt to grasp the meanings of “comprendo” because Italian has the word “comprendere” meaning “to comprehend, understand, comprise and include.” In Italian, “il comprendonio” means “the understanding.” But Italians prefer to use the verb “capire” to say that they understand in every day conversations. So, here the advantage goes to the Italians because they can understand the Spanish-speaker. They have a word similar to Spanish “comprender,” but the Spanish do not have a word close enough to “capire” for them to understand its use in conversation.

Similarly, Italian has “intendere” meaning “to hear, intend, mean and understand.” An Italian will say, “Intendo dire” (“I mean to say”), but Italians still prefer “capire” to “intendere,” with the result that they can figure out what a Spanish-speaker means by “entender,” but the Spanish-speaker probably won’t understand “capire.”

Consider these equivalent phrases:

Italian: “Questo mi piace.” Spanish: “Me gusta esto.” English: “I like this.”

Italians understand the Spanish verb “gustar” because Italian has “gustare,” but they use it only when they are enjoying the taste of something. Spanish-speakers use “gustar” for everything they like. Spanish-speakers are unlikely to understand “piacere,” which Italians use to express their liking for everything.

Similar or somewhat similar:

The noun for “fight” in Italian is “combattimento” and “combate” in Spanish.

“Conversation” is “conversazione” in Italian and “conversacion” in Spanish.

“Thank you” is “grazie” in Italian and “gracias” in Spanish.

“Please” is “per favore” in Italian and “por favor” in Spanish.

“Friend” is “amico” in Italian and “amigo” in Spanish.

 The verb “to speak” is “parlare” in Italian and “hablar” in Spanish. These are not as far apart as they might seem. Notice that the two words have some similarities in their constituent sounds, although, here, Italian is more similar to French (where the equivalent is “parler”), but notice also the similarity between the Italian and Spanish verbs in the way they are conjugated.



io parlo       
noi parliamo
yo hablo   
nosotros hablamos
tu parli  
voi parlate         
tú hablas     
vosotros habláis
egli parla 
essi parlano      
él habla     
ellos hablan

(Metatron points out that Sicilian—which is mostly similar to Italian—is, in some cases, more similar to Spanish as when Spanish “nosotros” literally means “we others” and Sicilian uses an equivalent construction, “nuàutri,” for “we.”)

Not quite the same:

Some Spanish-speakers use “el carro” for automobile. (Although Spanish also has “automóvil” and “coche.”) In Italian, the word “carro” exists but is considered to be an old-fashioned word and usually connotes a horse-drawn cart. Italians usually use “automobile” or “macchina.” (BTW, Russian uses similar words for “car” that could be transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet as “avtomobil” and “mashina.”)

 Many words do not match up at all with their equivalents in Italian and Spanish:

“To eat” is “mangiare” in Italian, but it is “comer” in Spanish.

In Italian, “ciba” means “food,” but it is “comida” in Spanish.

“To work” is “lavorare” in Italian, but it is “trabajar” in Spanish.

False friends:

Some words in other languages sound like words in your language but have a completely different meaning. (A classic example is the word “gift,” which is usually a nice “present” in English, but in German—where all nouns are capitalized—“Gift” means “poison.”) There are many false friends between Italian and Spanish:

“Carta” means “letter” in Spanish, but it means “paper” in Italian. Close, but dissimilar enough to cause trouble.

Worse, “burro” means “donkey” in Spanish, but in Italian it means “butter.”

In Italian “olio” is “oil,” but in Spanish “oil” is “aceite.” The trouble begins because the similar-sounding Italian word “aceto” means “vinegar,” which would be “vinagre” in Spanish.

Word choice:

Italians prefer to say “preferito” while Spanish-speakers favor “favorito.” English prefers “favorite.” [Although, just after publishing this post, I read about a Spanish-speaking woman who referred to her favorite niece as “mi preferida”; there are always exceptions.]

Feminine and masculine words:

“Il mare” in Italian is the masculine word for “sea” and so is “el mar” in Spanish, but, “il fiore” is the masculine word for “flower” in Italian, while its equivalent in Spanish, “la flor,” is feminine.

Spanish makes words plural by adding “-s,” but Italian changes the final vowel to “-i” (masc.) or “-e” (fem.) to make it plural. (This gets confusing because  “-e” can also be a singular masculine ending.)