All Things Must Pass
What child growing up in the dawn of television didn’t appreciate the wonder coming through that 8”, then 12”, then glory of glories, a 15” screen? All of that entertainment beaming into our living rooms in crisp (sort of crisp) black and white images. I had color all around me and more right outside our front door, so watching television programs in black & white was no hardship. I remember some of my friends—a few pegs above our home in family income—telling me about their COLOR televisions. Quite an investment for one or two programs per week.
NBC was the network that inaugurated color broadcasting—Colorcasting—November 22, 1953 with The Colgate Comedy Hour and six weeks later with the 1954 "Tournament of Roses Parade”. With the early 1960s arrival of Disney’s re-branded Wonderful World Of Color, and the western-themed hit show Bonanza, black and white programs would continue but own a constantly diminishing share of network offerings. The world of television would soon be colorful.
In a world of televised color, a staple of independent television stations for years was a seemingly endless catalog of black and white films. To be sure, color films began the inevitable migration to color television, but for independent stations, black and white movies continued to be a cornerstone of programming. I’m always reminded of the moment I first watched the 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz as it transformed itself from sepia tone to color. The drama of Dorothy opening the door of her black and white Kansas house into a Technicolor Oz was a brilliant idea. Ironically, some of my friends tell me that today Kansas feels more and more like the entire state is back in sepia tone. Never mind that. Like Dorothy in Oz, we open our doors on the coast and see the world in color, with that big blue Pacific Ocean by our side.
Mark Twain needs no introduction. His original storytelling has transcended ideologies, generations, wars, depressions, and recessions. Born in 1835, he made it to age 74. No small feat considering early 19th century medicine, wars, superstitions, etc., pushed the average American life expectancy in 1835 to about 40 (today it’s 76.) Twain’s longevity provided ample time for him to create a body of literary works, successful in his life, and reimagined after his death through their film adaptation by Hollywood studios. One of those films was A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court. The idea of being transported to an earlier time—whether the result of one’s magic or an anomaly of science—is intriguing, particularly when we wish to right some wrong, offer some help, or just stroll through a world totally at odds with our own.
In Twain’s story the ‘yankee’ is accused of being a witch of some type. As he is prepared for execution he realizes he knows something his Arthurian hosts would not: There is to be an eclipse, and that little piece of information is how Sir Guy (our hero) confounds his accusers and forces them to cancel his death sentence. The king at one point had offered up “even to the halving of my kingdom; but banish this calamity, spare the sun!”
Sir Guy continued the ruse. After all, he could not stop the eclipse.
“The darkness was steadily growing, the people becoming more and more distressed. I now said: ‘I have reflected, Sir King. For a lesson, I will let this darkness proceed, and spread night in the world; but whether I blot out the sun for good, or restore it, shall rest with you.’”
Having negotiated a fee for his services, the eclipse continued but the people of the kingdom had Sir Guy’s promise that the darkness would retreat. And so it did.
I have always loved the film, and Twain’s imagination was hardly derivative. He was a wonderful writer. But you already knew that.
On the 21st of August, many Americans too shall experience the power of the universe with an eclipse across our continent. We already know that this is a simple matter of science as one astral object gets in the way of another. In this case, Earth’s moon will travel between our planet and our sun. As I said, science. But just the same, in these uncomfortable times, living in a country where more than half the population did not vote for its ‘leader’, many wonder daily just what the hell is going on with our government. And on August 21st, do we need a heavenly reminder that fate may be in the hands of others?
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”. The first time I heard that phrase was not in classic lit class. It was hearing Edward R. Murrow utter the phrase on CBS television as he was creating groundbreaking television journalism. Murrow, obviously, was quoting Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar, Act I Scene III. The phrase goes,
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Cassius is, in fact, attempting to persuade Brutus to stop Caesar from becoming a monarch, and stopping Caesar is what Cassius believes is in the best interest of the country. He is arguing that it is not fate, but their weak position, which is exploiting them to act against their will.
These days most of us are unlikely to attempt to dissuade a powerful crazy person, say, some country's leader, from continuing to appear irrational (or worse) or to continue to act, well, crazy. Even if a country’s leader already sees himself as a monarch, society must work together to keep us from entering days that are even darker. I believe it makes sense, at least this month, to use Twain’s story and the August eclipse as a metaphor for our times. For many of us, it may be getting darker with each day’s headlines. But we will all emerge from the darkness. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote,
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle !
Be a hero in the strife !
Wherever we can we must strive to build a world not destroy it. This month’s eclipse will be wondrous and memorable. But it is a fleeting moment (2 hours, more or less) of darkness. The sun will reappear. How do I know this? George Harrison’s words give us some faith. “All Things Must Pass”.