Wednesday, February 25, 2009

R.I.P. Polaroid

The invention of modern instant cameras is generally credited to American scientist Edwin Land, who unveiled the first commercial instant camera, the Land Camera in 1947, 10 years after founding the Polaroid Corporation. The original purpose of instant cameras originated from his young daughter Jennifer's question, "Why can't we see our vacation photographs now?" Edwin Land's original idea behind instant photography was to create a photographic system that was seamless and easy for anyone to use.

Many people have enjoyed seeing their photos shortly after taking them, allowing them to recompose or retake the photo if they didn't get it right. But instant cameras were found to be useful for other purposes such as ID cards, passport photos, ultrasound photos and other uses which required an instant photo. They were also used by police officers and fire investigators because of their ability to create an unalterable instant photo.

Polaroid's decline began in the mid-1990's when the company lost direction and digital photography began to threaten its core instant photo business. In 1995, an outsider, Gary T. DiCamillo, was hired to lead the company. DiCamillo failed to put in place a successful long-term strategy, and financial mismanagement and slowing sales created a cash crisis. Polaroid declared bankruptcy in October 2001.
By laying off thousands of workers and adopting other cost-cutting measures, the company stabilized and was sold for $237.7 million in August 2002 to a group led by One Equity Partners, a Chicago investment firm. More than 100 employees in research and development at the company's Waltham and New Bedford, Mass. facilities were laid off in 2005. A Polaroid spokeswoman would not comment on the layoffs or severance payments.

Throughout all of Polaroid's transitions employees have suffered. Just before it filed for bankruptcy protection, the company eliminated lifetime health and life insurance for retirees. Polaroid stock, which employees had been forced to buy and hold for a decade became virtually worthless after the bankruptcy. One Equity Partners refused to take over the Polaroid pension plan, saddling the federal government with the obligation and forcing some employees to accept cuts in their monthly payments.
Meantime, many executives were able to cash out of their retirement plans and reclaim deferred compensation before the bankruptcy. Others received bonuses for continuing to do their jobs, and many received shares in the new company that emerged from bankruptcy after the acquisition by One Equity Partners.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

OTR: Blind Man's Noir

It all started when I was cruising around Culver City looking for an address with the news on KNX-AM radio. The news suddenly stopped and a radio show began. It was “Dragnet”, the infamous cornball cop show from the Sixties starring Jack Webb, only this was the Forties radio show version. I toughed it out, hoping I could get a few laughs out of it. I didn’t. It was every bit as good as James Ellroy at his most biting. The episode concerned a deranged World War II sailor missing in action after his wife on the homefront was found brutally beaten to death. Of course, it happened on Bunker Hill (downtown Los Angeles, right by City Hall). Jack Webb was brilliant and had me hanging in there. There was even a full orchestra and sound effects; it was like watching an old film noir with the images all created in your head. A blind man’s noir. The beginning of my love affair with OTR (Old Time Radio).

There’s quite a cult surrounding OTR and it’s not just composed of old fogeys. People like old crime films and they like spoken word and there’s a certain cerebral gratification in working out the images in your head in this day and age of A.D.D. cinema. OTR mp3 discs sell on eBay for only $7-10 apiece, and in return you get 100 episodes on one disc, maybe more! I listened to KNX-AM religiously and discovered some terrific shows:

“Casey, Crime Photographer”: Casey works as a meddling shutterbug for The Morning Express newspaper with his sidekick Anne Williams (even thugs respectfully address her as “Miss Williams” hoho), and episodes begin and end at their favorite bar, The Blue Note. The episodes are very well written, my favorites always have some psychotic femme fatale. My favorite is called “Road Angel” about a girl hitch hiker who’s a serial killer and murders male drivers. Aileen Wuornos, indeed!

“Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar”: Edmond O’Brien, film noir king (“The Killers”, “D.O.A.”, “Public Enemy Number One”) played Johnny Dollar, insurance investigator who would solve crimes while listing his expense account all through the episode. “Expense account, $1.25 cab fare to the showgirls’ coldwater flat studio apartment”. O’Brien was very funny: seemed like Dollar cared just as much about his stomach and his pecker as he did about solving crimes. He was always eating and flirting with chicks. “I may need protection…from YOUR BATHING SUIT!” He was always introduced as “that fabulous free-lance investigator with the action-packed expense account!” When I started listening to Johnny Dollar I conducted insurance investigations for Los Angeles County, and he was a big hero of mine.

“Mike Shayne”: Jeff Chandler never struck me as a dynamic screen presence, but as Mike Shayne on the radio he was amazing! Surly, tough as nails, Mike Hammer’s slightly smarter brother had one violent bone-crunching episode after another! My favorite is “Tahlani’s Tears” where a crazed seaman named Jeremiah comes after him with his peg leg and pirate hook. Wild Stuff!

“Candy Matson” is a female private investigator who solves crimes with a drunken has-been actor named Rembrandt Watson. I like the episodes when she’s running around San Francisco…pretty atmospheric stuff, and she has a sexy voice. Pre-phone sex!

But the Mad Daddy of crime radio was probably Jack Webb. When he wasn’t busting heroin dealers, juvenile delinquents, or psycho movie set stage hands on “Dragnet” he also had a short-lived show called “Pete Kelly’s Blues”. This took place in New Orleans and Kelly was a Dixieland trumpet player who always got jacked around by gangsters. In one episode he takes a beating from a gangster and forced to drink ten shots of whiskey! “Whiskey! AGAIN!!” In between action scenes there would be a soothing Dixieland jazz interlude. Weird!!! After the show was cancelled Webb made a film version of the show with Peggy Lee, Jayne Mansfield, Ella Fitzgerald and Lee Marvin. What a cast!

Old crime films aren’t everybody’s cup of tea but if you love film noir you have to get in on OTR. There’s some great listening to be had, and long road trips are a million times more fun with these psychotic soap operas blasting their weird scenes into your cranium.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Wander Lust

If there’s anything I hate it’s flying and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the height or turbulence, either. To tell you the truth I’m pretty claustrophobic, and there’s nothing more claustrophobic than flying coach. The most recent plane flight I took was on Air Canada five years ago. I had to sit in the same cramped chair for six hours plus, utter torture. One-fourth of a day just sitting in one prone position, it was interminable. Next to an unwashed French Canadien guy who bit his nails and scratched himself like a rain dog.

The worst part was the flight back to Los Angeles, the first day of the infamous 2005 storm season. The plane bucked like a wild bronco through an unending blanket of gray clouds. You couldn’t stick your hand in front of you because the clouds were so thick. The plane dropped five stories every ten minutes, babies were crying and I squeezed Rebecca’s hand so hard she can still feel it! We finally landed, and landed hard. When the crew stood by the exit to wish us goodbye you could see the pilots with ashen faces. They knew how fucking scary the ordeal was themselves. I’ve never flown since.

So when we got the invite to a convention in San Francisco I said, “Hey, let’s take the train. It’ll be fun!” It was…for the first five hours. A train ride from Union Station (L.A.) to Jack London Square (Oakland) is about twelve hours, much too long to be sitting in a train. Then again, train rides whip plane flights any day. There’s tons of leg and elbow room, you can walk up and down the aisles all day without some stupid drink cart banging your ankles (the snack bar’s downstairs). There’s also a video game room, a great bubble window observation deck with wi-fi and bathrooms of different sizes: handicapped, one with a vanity table for the ladies in addition to the regular closets.

Train travel suffers from a Catch-22 problem, though. They’re very slow, but that’s probably due to the fact that many tracks haven’t been changed since 1921 or farther back, so until tracks get fixed and or upgraded train travel will always be slow and stodgy. But they are fun and very picturesque!

The best mode of travel is still automobile style. Driving to Arizona for eight hours to Rebecca’s art show is the stuff of legend. Each rest stop had a character of its own: one was so infested with killer bees, but when you gotta pee, you gotta pee. I ran like the wind, and one bee even managed to make its way in my car. He got out quickly, though. They’re pretty stupid insects, fuck that National Geographic shit. They’ll circle around a window for 3 hours even though there’s an open door next to it. Stupid motherfuckers. Thanks for the honey, assholes.

I also like the phantom truck stops, some with shower rooms, condom machines in the men’s room with the rubber vaginas for only 75 cents. Heh! The only flaw of course is that your right foot is paralyzed for the next week, cruise control or no cruise control. You still have to pump that pedal, baby. Stick your pedal to metal til your crazy score is settled: now I wonder who sang that tune?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Glitter By The Sea

One of the great turning points in my life was when I spent the summer of 1974 going to University High School (Westwood, California) by day and going to Rodney's English Disco at night. I was surrounding by trashy teenage kids morning, noon and night. It was teenage heaven! The big sound at the time wasn't that mopey punk rock shit, it was glitter (retroactively labeled “glam”) rock. Short, compact pop numbers with heavy metal guitar and drum mixes and blindingly metallic clothes and make-up with androgynous lyrics, glitter rock was exciting in ways punk could never be. While punk was fatalistic (“No future”, “I want a riot of my own”) glitter was about being young and feeling the wonder in everything, no matter how mundane.

The rush of glitter rock was like having my central nervous system hot-wired by Peter Pan. Of all the concert halls to showcase my glitter rock heroes my fondest memories were from the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, a medium sized Art Deco building that once hosted the Academy Awards. I remember wearing my green crushed velvet elephant flares and fire-engine red platform shoes. There was T. Rex with Marc Bolan wearing a cape and a big silver streak down his black cork-screw curls playing "Chariot Choogle" and "Buick Mackane" girl I'm just a Jeepster for your love. He'd strut up and down the stage playing his Gibson Flying V guitar, all 4'10'' of him, and finished his "concert" pulling out a bullwhip and beating his guitar with it!
After the show I'd stand out in front of the Civic and the glam Dollybirds would run up to me with glitter on their cheeks. "Hey, do you need a ride home, tee hee?"
I'd reply with my terrified young man face, "No thanks".
"Nice platforms, giggle".

Then there was Queen starring Freddie Mercury resplendent in crisp white gown and long flowing black hair, shaking his shoulders like a chorus girl and wailing, "Hey Big Spender" from "Sweet Charity". He seemed very gentle on stage, very genteel - "Do you wish to hear another tune?" and sang "Keep Yourself Alive". What made all the SM Civic shows so special was that they seemed like huge parties of varying androgyny, a true precursor to the gay influence that would ultimately lay down the foundation to Hollywood punk rock. And nobody got hurt, imagine that. Not with Freddie Mercury delicately singing the heart-breaking "Nevermore" in his immaculate soprano.

Lou Reed had chopped off all his hair and dyed it platinum blonde and wore thick sunglasses, lizard heroin chic to kill. When he sang "heroin" he simulated shooting up. He was doing heavy metal covers of old Velvet underground songs. It was cold!
The morning after I saw him floating around the newsstand on Las Palmas Avenue, the big gay street in Hollywood (pre-WeHo) wearing the exact same clothes he performed in the night before. I carefully approached him.
"Hey, Lou, uh, great show last night - thanks for the great music", I quietly said.
"oh, hey, uh, gee thanks", he quietly replied, still looking at the magazines at the stand without looking at me.

The Kinks were glam at the time, playing their big drag queen anthem "Lola" while one of The Cockettes was jigging on stage to them. The Cockettes were the ugliest drag queens I've ever seen, combining hippie chic with feminine make-up. They were gash-tly! I didn't care, though - I had my silver satin flares on and my thunderbolt platform shoes on.

I also saw Sparks, Peter Frampton's Camel (before he became a trailer park pin-up), but The Sweet were something else! I've never seen so many beautiful girls at a rock show, ever.

The Sweet had rugged old man faces but the prettiest hair, almost like wigs, but real, coiffed the way only the British can. First song, "Ballroom Blitz", then "Blockbuster", and then of course the amazing "Hellraiser". What a show. "Desolation Boulevard" had just come out with all those great songs like "Sweet F.A." and "No You Don't". Before they played you could hear David Bowie crooning "Young girl they call them the Diamond Dogs" and it was all about us, we were the Diamond Dogs and somehow it was more important, more fun, more shiny and more wondrous than anything that would come after that. I never felt so young and never did again.