Monday, July 20, 2015

In Search of...Atlantis

by G. Jack Urso
 

In Search of…Atlantis, narrated by Leonard Nimoy and first broadcast on May 22, 1977, surveys the various artifacts and myths attributed to legend of Atlantis, which reached a height of interest in popular culture during the 1970s. Many of the items presented in the show as possible evidence of the lost continent were previously introduced in the documentaries In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973) and In Search of Ancient Mysteries (1973), narrated by Rod Serling, which are reviewed in the Aeolus 13 Umbra article In Search of…Preposterous Explanations.

In this episode, the producers try to make the connection that nearly every unexplained ancient monument or relic is somehow connected to the Atlantis myth. Petroglyphs, ancient Egypt, Central and South American pre-Columbian native cultures,  the so-called Bimini Wall, psychic Edgar Cayce, and other cultural artifacts are all tied into the legend of the lost continent.

Along with other "evidence," such as the Easter Island moai and the Antikythera Mechanism, a complicated clockwork navigational aid from ancient Greece often referred to an ancient computer, these relics are connected to the Atlantis myth based on no more than  unsupported speculation. This only serves to undermine the creditability of the episode and to devalue the accomplishments of the cultures that actually created these impressive examples of lost technology. For more information on the aforementioned items, please visit the Aeolus 13 Umbra articles In Search of…The Easter Island Massacre and The Antikythera Mechanism: A Relic of Ancient Greek Science.   

The Antikythera Mechanism
More serious research regarding the island of Santorini (aka Thera) and the Minoan culture and its connection to the Atlantis myth is presented. This provides a more substantial contribution to helping viewers appreciate the true origins of the legend of the lost continent an ancient Mediterranean civilization wiped out by one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in history. The scenes shot of the archeological dig on location at Santorini add a certain authenticity to the episode. The remains of the inhabitants' former dwellings reminds the viewer of the human tragedy behind the myth.

Nimoy’s narration is at once mysterious and inviting, yet there is an extra dimension to his narration that goes beyond a simple vocal performance. If the ISO production team wanted to save money, any number of voiceover artists could have been used, yet Nimoy’s voice comes with the gravitas of his role on Star Trek as the cool and logical Mr. Spock. That extra dimension creates a subconscious element to the viewing experience that is more than just the words on a page. The producers recognized this while developing the concept and in fact Rod Serling, who narrated the two original 1973 In Search of... documentaries, was intended to host the series before his untimely death in 1975. While Nimoy is the face of the series now, one can only wonder what contributions Serling would have made to the program.

Often overlooked is the music composed by Laurin Rinder and Mike Lewis. In addition to the In Search Of… opening and closing themes, they also composed background and incidental music. In this episode, Rinder and Lewis contribute pieces evocative of the tonal structure used in ancient Greek music that helps draw the viewer into the episode. It is in these small details, including Nimoy’s narration, that one can see how the various elements in a production combine to create an experience for the viewer that goes beyond the script.

While Nimoy carefully parses his words throughout the episode to make it clear that In Search of... takes no position on whether  or not the tales of Atlantis are true, the attempt to connect so many divergent cultures and artifacts to the legend works against any claims of real objectivity. Except for the excellent segment on Santorini and the Minoan culture, In Search of…Atlantis, provides little to separate fact from fiction; however, for those interested in a historical perspective on the development of the Atlantis myth in popular culture one need go no further than this fine episode.

Digital copy of an original 16-mm print uploaded from my personal archives:



Saturday, July 18, 2015

In Search of...The Bermuda Triangle

by G. Jack Urso

 
In Search of…The Bermuda Triangle, narrated by Leonard Nimoy and first broadcast on April 27, 1977. In this episode, the ISO research team explores disappearances and legends surrounding the Bermuda Triangle, perhaps the quintessential 1970s paranormal conspiracy theory.

This episode explores the mystery by reviewing specific events and interviewing actual participants in noted incidents. This provides a historical record of their testimonies for those researching the Bermuda Triangle. In typical ISO form, the producers do not evaluate any claims or evidence for their validity, they simply report what others have reported; however, this gives the impression of tacit approval of the otherworldly conspiracy theories. Many of the disappearances  previously attributed to “mysterious” circumstances have since been determined to have had very natural explanations, either due to misreported facts or rare ocean and weather phenomenon.

Nevertheless, ISO does detour into the Twilight Zone when it highlights a bizarre call to a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, late night radio show about the Bermuda Triangle warning that the disappearances have an extraterrestrial origin. Why the producers spent any time on such nonsense is puzzling except that it fits in with the emerging New Age narrative of 1970s pop culture.

I do recall watching this episode when it first aired and being completely fascinated, and a little terrified, by the possible existence of a Bermuda Triangle. While I discount any supernatural explanation of rare, but otherwise explainable events, what keeps me going back is the wonderful writing. It creates an atmosphere of mystery and draws you deeper into it. Despite knowing better, I can’t help getting lured into the enigma of the Bermuda Triangle, even a little, because of the script and, of course, Leonard Nimoy’s wonderful narration.

Digital copy of an original 16-mm print uploaded from my personal archives:



In Search of...Inca Treasure

by G. Jack Urso
 

In Search of…Inca Treasure, a captivating 22-minute look at Incan art, culture, and legend, narrated by Leonard Nimoy and first broadcast August 1, 1977. While In Search of… is usually noted for its exploration of pseudo-scientific legends and myths such as Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, ghosts, and UFOs,  it also produced a number of reasonably well-researched scholarly documentaries on such topics as the Aztecs, the historical Dracula, Vincent Van Gogh, Africanized “killer” bees, and, in this episode, the Incas. The "treasure" here is not gold, but rather the relics of a lost civilization.

This episode surveys Incan history intermixed with tales of the discovery of Machu Picchu and related lore. An extended segment features a 1976 archeological expedition led by Professor Edmundo Guillén of San Marcos University in Lima, Peru, which rediscovered the lost city of Vilcambama, the fabled last refuge of the Incas against the invading Spanish. The ISO camera crew goes on location to follow Guillén and his colleagues into the interior. Considering the heavy equipment sensitive to the extremities of weather, filming in a tropical jungle must have taxed both scholars and technicians; however, the results bring an authenticity to the documentary.

 
Digital copy of an original 16-mm print uploaded from my personal archives:



Saturday, July 4, 2015

My Last Fourth of July

by G. Jack Urso
 

I celebrated my last Fourth of July in 1979. After the divorce, my mother sold our home on Norwood Avenue, which she could not  afford on her own, and moved us into a small two-up, two-down row house. As a child, Independence Day was a day-long event. For a few years we hosted an annual picnic in our backyard. Since it coincided with my grandfather’s birthday, both relatives and friends of the family would gather. Fireworks were ubiquitous, even if most were illegal. One year, I remember looking down the street and seeing so many sparklers and roman candles lighted up in front yards it looked like an otherworldly arc of light, transforming the usually quiet neighborhood into a dreamlike fantasy out of one of my children’s books with happy endings brightly painted in watercolors.

The Urso family annual July Fourth picnic, 42 Norwood Ave., Albany, NY, 1972.



My mother never liked fireworks, the explosions reminded her too much of wartime Sicily. On one summer vacation in the late 1960s in Wildwood, New Jersey, the low-flying planes dragging advertising banners freaked mom out so much that she ran all the way back to the motel in a panic leaving me and my siblings to fend for ourselves until she could gather her wits.

I wish I could remember where my brother and sister were that evening, but the divorce fractured not only the bonds between husband and wife but also with and between the children. Afterwards, we tended to go our own ways. My father's many affairs and my mother’s full-blown, hot-blooded, Sicilian meltdown caused a bit of a scandal in our close-knit Catholic Church and school. My friends faded away, as did my mother’s, and I withdrew into a shell of isolation. It was as embarrassing and as uncomfortable for me as it was for her, if not more so.

I had been spending the summer working with my mother in her one-woman cleaning business. She was always a bit of an entrepreneur, even when serving in the role of a traditional housewife, often cutting hair for neighborhood ladies to pick up a few bucks. She once joined a cleaning product Amway-like pyramid scheme business called “Best Line” and somehow managed to sell enough product to win a trip to Paris, France, much to the consternation of those in the pyramid above her.

We cleaned businesses as well as private homes, and since the only families who could afford a cleaning woman were relatively wealthy, compared to us, she spent the days constantly reminded of what we lost as a family as she scrambled to make a living the best she could with a sixth grade education.

This was the first summer after we moved out of the family home and I was suffering Independence Day withdrawal symptoms. No picnic. No fireworks. No friends, and the only family was my mother and myself.

We had been slowly learning that holidays were mainly for families – intact families. That previous Christmas, less than a month after we moved out of the old family home, my mom threw a combination holiday and housewarming party in our little row house. A handful of former neighbors showed up, though my childhood friends chose not to join their parents that particular evening. Just a few years previous we had a house full over the holidays, now my mother scrambled for a few people to show up and pay their “respects.”

Holiday or not, my mother worked every day cleaning homes weekdays and a couple businesses on the weekends. Even though she had to be at work at 5 a.m. the next morning, I think my mother also felt that we had to do something that evening. I had never seen the big fireworks display downtown at the Empire State Plaza, Nelson Rockefeller’s massive monument to post-modernism, so we climbed into our sunshine yellow 1971 VW Super Beetle crammed with cleaning supplies and headed downtown.

Unable to find a parking spot, we drove slowly around the plaza. We lingered long at traffic lights to watch the fireworks before being moved along by a cop or impatient driver until we got to another light and repeated the process.

My mother paused the Beetle at an intersection just at the top of a hill and we looked at the fireworks as they exploded over the plaza. The beauty salon she cleaned stood on the corner opposite us. Once a hairdresser herself who counted actor Kirk Douglas’ sister as one of her clients, she now cleaned up after the stylists. Her occasional advice on cutting techniques ignored. Though barely into her forties, my mother was losing all those things that gave her status in society. Her husband, her house, her career, her future – all those things that once lit up her life now seemed to have been as brief as the fireworks that burst and quickly faded overhead.

We glanced up to see the display reach its climax in a dazzling show of light and thunder. The audiences’ gasps of awe mixed in with the pyrotechnics, producing a calliope of sight and sound. Bathed in the dreamy glow, we spoke softly about the picnics in the old days of just a few years ago. The light changed to green and a horn sounded from behind, urging us to move on. My mother put the car into gear. We turned the corner and went home.