Monday, June 10, 2019

Reflections - The Holocaust Tattoo & The Barber Shop.

When I was a kid, I used to sweep the hair in my Dad's Barber shop. I have always equated Dad's Barber shop, in the Gippsland town of Moe, with the bar from "Cheers". Dad used to advertise it as "three chairs, no waiting" and it was the kind of place where "everybody knows your name." I have many fond memories of that Barber shop as a place of rich conversation, friendship and it was a place, through which I learned a lot about the world outside my small town confines. I learned about places and people, their vocations, the lives they led, the dreams they had. 

I also learned a lot about history.

One particular day, when I was maybe eight or nine years old, an elderly gentleman - a regular - came in for his regular tidy up. Despite his thinning, silvery hair, he always requested the same - a short back and sides, and a shave. Dad's work with the cut throat razor was quite a thing to see. It is a skill that you don't often see anymore, so to watch one do it with the skill of my father - it is artistry.

Anyway, this regular. He was an impish fellow, always well dressed and he had a sparkle in his eye, as though he had a deep appreciation of the world. He was always happy. I remember he had an accent. It was lyrical - not in the manner of the Irish or Scottish or even Welsh accents, which were the ones I'd heard the most as a boy in the early 80's. It sounded very much like the accent of our then next door neighbours, Tina and Rudy, who displayed lots of crockery and dinnerware with windmills on them in their home. I was to learn that this man was from Holland. 

For pocket money back in those days, I would man the broom in the Barber shop and sweep up the hair that would fall to the foor as my father clicked his scissors against the comb. Too much hair around the base of the barber's chair was hazardous, so I always swept with a sense of urgency, making sure the linoleum floor was clear (it should be said that an 8 or 9 year old boy armed with a broom and sweeping furiously while a barber is trying to work is just as much a hazard. But I was nothing if not task oriented).

I happened to be sweeping by my Dad's leather and chrome Barber's chair as the eldrely Dutchman sat down. Having stowed his coat and hat on a hook near the waiting chair, he'd dropped into the seat, settled back with a satisfied sigh, glad to be off his feet for a little while and he rolled up his shirt sleeves. As my Dad turned and flicked a barber's cape with the flourish of a matador, I noticed a simple tattoo on the elderly gentleman's forearm. Though it was but a moment, I immediately recognized a series of numbers. 

The gentleman saw my moment of pause and my puzzled expression and he smiled. As the barber's cape floated down and around him, he jutted his arm out from underneath and he showed it to me. 

I hadn't been mistaken. I saw a faded series of numbers, etched into the tanned skin of his forearm.

Max Kaufmann shows his Dachau tattoo --- Palm Beach Daily News photo by Chris Salata.

He explained that he was a prisoner of the Germans during World War 2. I knew a little bit about World War 2 from my own grandfather, who served during that terrible conflict. The elderly gentleman before me said that he was held in a camp in Holland, before being transferred to a place called Auschwitz. I had never heard of that place before. He told me many people were taken there and were given a tattoo, just like the one he had. He told me that it was a dark place and many people had died there, but he had been rescued.

That was the first time I'd ever heard about Auschwitz, the Holocaust or the Jewish people. I sensed, even then, that I been told something important. The encounter with this man has stayed with me. It was such a fleeting moment, but from that, I explored the Second World War in depth and, in particular, the Jewish experience. 

It was around this time, that I turned my attention to writing. In a grade three creative writing class, I wrote a short piece about a war experience from a soldier's perspective. I can't be sure if that occurred around the same time as my encounter with the elderly Holocaust survivor...but I like to think that it did. 

Moments of deep learning come from places and people you might least expect. This was but one of many lessons I took from my Dad's barber shop.


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Star Wars - The Future, Clouded It Is...

I was alerted to an article this morning from i09's Beth Elderkin, confirming the news that the first film in the new Star Wars trilogy - after December's "Episode 9: The Rise Of Skywalker" - will be helmed by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff & B.D. Weiss.

screen grab from i09 article by Beth Elderkin (credit i09).

Quoting directly from Disney CEO Bob Iger, who was speaking at a MoffetNathanson Media & Communications summit this week, 

"We did a deal with David Benioff & B.D. Weiss, who are famous for Game of Thrones, and the next movie we release will be theirs," Iger said. "And we're not saying anything more about that." 

Side note - it remains amusing to me that Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy remains pretty much invisible from any Star Wars related announcements - although that is not unsurprising these days.

A few things stand out to me in the reading of Elderkin's article.

I've watched the on-line backlash to the current/final season of Game Of Thrones. Criticisms around the overall tone of the final season, narrative choices and the disjointed nature of the characterizations have abounded, with much of that criticism being directed at Benioff & Weiss.

Walt Disney CEO - Bob Iger.

Iger's quote states that the next film in the Star Wars saga will be Benioff & Weiss' - but that's it. He apparently refused to elaborate on the trilogy, which has a planned release schedule every two years, from 2022. Elderkin's article seems to suggest that Iger has only committed to this pair for the first film in the new trilogy. Does that mean that we can expect Benioff & Weiss to helm/write the first film only, with others taking over for the 2nd and 3rd films? Or will they write the trilogy and hand directing duties over to others? 

("Always in motion, is the future..." Yoda).

Elderkin is, perhaps, being a little coy but I do find merit in her suggestion. I wonder if Iger is watching things unfold really closely, assessing the reaction to the Game Of Thrones final season and preparing contingencies for the Star Wars franchise, as production on the new trilogy ramps up. There feels, to me, a lot of ongoing uncertainty in the Star Wars cinematic IP - particularly in the wake of Rian Johnson's disastrous "The Last Jedi" (2017).  

There are positives to take from this announcement though. 

I am heartened by previous statements from Bob Iger that there will be a three year hiatus between Episode 9 and the new cinematic trilogy - which will be a separate narrative from the Skywalker saga. That will give the writers time to properly flesh out the 3 film cycle - a'la *George Lucas* - and they can avoid the terrible narrative mess of the sequel trilogy. 

We need to remember that Benioff & Weiss are showrunners for Game Of Thrones, tasked with wrangling the source material from George R.R. Martin into a cohesive whole for the medium of television. They can't be expected to take full responsibility for the outcome of the presentation nor the response to it.

Freed from the shackles of that property, and the shackles of the Star Wars/Skywalker legacy, Benioff & Weiss have the potential to put together a compelling trilogy, with a strong, *planned* narrative arc and fresh, new, archetypal characters that reflect the best of Lucas' mythology and the Campbellian influences Lucas drew on to create it. 

What Lucasfilm has to focus on lies outside of the cinematic/filmed universe. I am still hopeful for a clean out at the top of Lucasfilm from CEO Kathleen Kennedy, through to the Story Group and those in the customer engagement space, who have behaved appallingly towards a large body of fans since around 2016. 

Kathleen Kennedy has been an abject failure as CEO, mishandling the hiring and firing of directors of Solo: A Star Wars Story and original Episode 9 helmer, Colin Trevorrow. The resulting financial mismanagement of the Star Wars brand is clear - as illustrated by the critical and financial failure of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

(Empress Palpa...I mean Kathleen Kennedy. image credit

Kennedy has presided over a dysfunctional culture at Lucasfilm - most notably in the Lucasfilm Story Group. Storytelling by committee is a terrible form of storytelling for a cinematic IP. That there was no plan for the narrative arc of the sequel trilogy, disunity between certain creators and identities at Lucasfilm and the tacit endorsement of terrible fan engagement from company representatives like like Pablo Hidalgo, (now fired) Kiri Hart, (now fired) Chuck Wendig, (soon to be fired?) Rian Johnson, Matt Martin and others within Lucasfilm have done as much damage to the Star Wars brand as Kennedy's faulty decision making. The lack of discipline and respect by these individuals towards fans and a lack of any form of social media policy that would reign in the behavior of these individuals on-line is perplexing. 

As a writer myself, I have been routinely exposed to fans and critics alike over the years and the one thing I've learned from that is engagement is a one way street. You can only have positive engagement - even when you'd love to stab critics and trolls eyes out.

Star Wars remains a entertainment brand on life support. I remain unconvinced that Episode 9 will be a success at the box office, though I do still hope that J.J. Abrams has been able to do something with film that will erase much of the damage from "The Last Jedi". It remains to be seen how David Benioff & B.D. Weiss will transition from a property like Game of Thrones, which has earned a reputation for blood drenched violence, gore, murder, graphic rape and sex to the family friendly Star Wars franchise.

Regular readers of my blog will know how passionate I have been about Star Wars since I saw "A New Hope" as a four year old with my Dad back in 1977. Hell - Star Wars was the reason I became a writer and pursued my dream of publication. So I don't say these things lightly.

As for the future of Star Wars, beyond Episode 9 - I'll watch and see from the peripheries, how things develop. Star Wars has been in an enjoyment free fall since "The Last Jedi" and it appears the culture at Lucasfilm shows no signs of abating. I remain terminally ambivalent about the future of the cinematic universe.


Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Victorian Trooper - Dedicated Site Now Live.

Now that I've completed my series of articles tracing the life of my great great grandfather, Joseph Ladd Mayes, I'm pleased to announce that I've launched a dedicated website that contains all of the articles I've presented here in a revised and updated form (always trust an author to pepper the first iteration of anything with grammatical flubs!).

The site is located at The Victorian Trooper

This series is designed to be a living document - that is - a document that I will add to or subtract from as new information comes to hand. Already, in the week since the site went live, I've come across new information that I've been able to add to the site, which is really exciting. I've also been in contact with some great people who are closely associated with efforts to bring more stories about the Victorian Police Force and its officers during the 1850's - 1900's forward. So that's been exciting as well. 

For years, many descendants of good and honest police officers have been ignored and treated with antipathy by many who have perpetuated a myth that the Constabulary in Victoria, Australia was a corrupt and evil one, while bushrangers like Ned Kelly were elevated to something akin to Robin Hood status.

It is my hope that my great great grandfather's story and others like him will be given the chance to be reviewed in a new light - that there were many principled and dedicated policemen during that era whose primary motivation was to uphold the law and protect the community.

I hope you can visit this tribute to my great great grandfather and explore the turbulent historical events he was immersed in.