Masterpiece Contemporary

by Victoire Sanborn

"Trust no one, confide in no one ..." This memorable line in Endgame, PBS's latest presentation from Masterpiece Contemporary, is the essence of a plot that includes secret talks and negotiations between Afrikaners and the African National Congress (ANC) that ended apartheid. If you missed the show or want to see it again, you can watch it online from October 26th - November 8th. For those who aren't familiar with the characters in this story or the story itself, I recommend that you read a short biography of the characters in this PBS link. Photographs of the historical people involved are placed next to the images of the actors who portray them.

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Apartheid Timeline

Endgame is available for online viewing
October 26 - November 8, 2009, Eastern Time



I always think the universe does a neat trick when a person's name predicts the vocation he or she takes as an adult. For example, in my town we have a public garden named for its benefactor, Mrs. Park. And here we have a book and a fascinating two hours of bee-heavy television inspired by a man named Mr. Pollan. (Not "pollen," no, but in a game with no rules, homophones count.)

Michael Pollan does a neat trick in his book, "Botany of Desire" -- he writes a history of plant evolution from the point of view of the apples, tulips, cannabis plants, and potatoes that spread their seeds around the globe on the backs of an adaptable group of animals who never seem to stay put: human beings.

Humans turned out to be avid gardeners, easily made dependent on plants that look pretty, get us high, and taste great. Do you enjoy a good french fry? Join the party. Potatoes are an incredibly diverse and nutritious food that grow well in poor soil, and they were a godsend to places like nineteenth-century Ireland where the farming was a tremendous challenge. Unfortunately, Irish farmers all planted the same type of potato, known as "the lumper." No other strains existed in the entire island, so when disease struck the lumper they had nothing to fall back on, and one eighth of the population starved to death in the great potato famine.

You think, Oh, that couldn't happen today, we have so many ways to fight plant disease! And it's true, we have everything from ladybugs to Agent Orange to combat bugs and blight. But like the nineteenth-century Irish, we've also fallen in love with one type of potato -- the Russet Bermuda. It's the one responsible for all those long, slender fries you see poking out of McDonald's boxes in salty little bouquets. They're delicious, and today our farmers are going to unnatural lengths to (a) keep restaurants stocked with uniform potatoes, which means (b) preventing the Russet Bermudas from mutating as they naturally would over time to adapt themselves to the constant influx of new bugs, germs, and weeds, which means farmers have to (c) manage the potatoes' environment with pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic engineering. It's like having plastic surgery every month to try to keep yourself looking nineteen years old, the way farm are trying to stay viable by artificially propping up consumer demand for a five-inch french fry.

Apples, on the other hand, have had better luck breaking out of the monoculture trap. Apples were able to find their way out of central Asia and around the globe due to our hard-wired love of sweetness. In telling the true story of Johhny Appleseed, we learn that not only was the man a kind of wonderful kook, but that when you plant an apple seed, the tree that grows from it may not resemble the fruit it came from at all. That's because apple seeds carry the genes for all types of apples inside them, and the majority of apple trees grown from seeds produce fruit that's not a lot of fun to eat. It's quite bitter, actually (sweet apple trees are produced by grafting plants together), but it's good for one thing: cider. And when you make a lot of cider and store it in barrels to drink later, it becomes hard cider. So what Johnny Appleseed actually brought to American was the chance to get good and drunk. And for a culture that was terrified of water (not having a reliable system for purifying it), *everybody* drank cider.

I wonder why they don't tell you that in fifth grade.

There's a good deal more to this great two hours of television, the other half of which is devoted to the cultivation of broken tulips and promoting sexual frustration in cannabis plants.

(On a personal note I'd just like to add that it was someone's good idea to choose a woman named Eden to post about a show partially devoted to apple trees. I carry one with me wherever I go.)




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Herb and Dorothy

Independent Lens

Here are Herb and Dorothy Vogel:


Herb-and-Dorothy.jpgLet's be honest: these people do not look like rock stars. 

And yet: in the art world, Herb and Dorothy -- he, a retired postal worker, and she, a librarian -- are rock stars in the extreme. They are rock stars for amassing an incredible collection of Minimalist and Conceptual art (view the collection); they are stars, too, for donating said collection, worth millions of dollars, to the National Gallery of Art...and for refusing compensation. Let me say that again: they refused compensation. This is not like Madonna, or Bono, saying, "no, no, National Gallery, consider this art a gift." Herb and Dorothy are people of modest means. They live in a tiny New York City apartment, filled with their pets: cats, turtles, fish, and whatever art they haven't, at this point, given away. And yet, when the National Gallery finally convinced them to accept payment, did they splurge on a bigger apartment? Buy a fancy sports car? No. They bought more art - art which they plan to donate, eventually, to the National Gallery, so that members of the public can enjoy it for free.

This, apparently, is just how Herb and Dorothy roll.

So we learn in a documentary, aptly titled "Herb and Dorothy," that aired last night on one of my favorite series, Independent Lens (if you missed it, check here for reruns, or check for local screenings - unfortunately, you can't watch the film online, and there doesn't seem to be a DVD). The couple's compulsion to collect art is striking, as is their apparent disinterest in material wealth. But what's most interesting is this: an hour of television featuring two such unlikely (and, let's face it, not very pretty, superficially speaking) characters. Herb and Dorothy do not look the part of art world denizens -- where's the bleached hair, the sleek clothes? No casting director would ever hire them. On television, characters are so often symbols -- of a demographic, a profession; but Herb and Dorothy aren't symbols of art collectors....they're just people who collect art, as compulsively as bees collect pollen. Not pretty-flowers-in-a-vase art, mind you, but challenging art..."weird" art. The kind of art that some people point at and say, derisively, "Pfft! I could have done that." ("But," as my grandfather would have said,"you didn't.")

This plain-looking couple is edgier, it turns out, than most people who bear the trappings of edginess. As artist Chuck Close says in the film, Herb and Dorothy are drawn to the least decorative, most rigorous pieces an artist creates. Just as they do not symbolize art collectors, they do not treat art as symbolic -- of what's "in," or "hot," or "important." They're drawn most of all to artifacts of the artistic process ("souvenirs," as an artist in the film puts it), versus end products that represent an artist's fully realized vision. The reason for this is clear: Herb and Dorothy love artists. They esteem them. They celebrate the process of making and sharing art above all else.

This, of course, is completely antithetical to so much commercial television, which treats reality itself as a commodity to be packaged, marketed and consumed. As "Herb and Dorothy" shows, there is no greater artistic process than the process by which we build our lives.


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The Chandlers and Their Times

Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times

by Jessica Gottlieb

Watching the Chandlers And Their Times was jarring, comforting, educational, enlightening and a cautionary tale. As an Angelino I have an affinity to the Los Angeles Times. In my childhood it was the newspaper that my parents counted on for their daily news. I was weaned on column one and Steve Lopez, reading the Times became part of my mornings somewhere in my sixteenth year.

There were Chandlers in my life, quite a few of them, apparently they were from different branches of the extraordinary family. While immersed in the story of a family whose drama rivals any Shakespearean tragedy, I found myself pointing and saying to my husband, "That's how Robbie got into car racing!" or "I think that's Kristie." he would look at me, shake his head and say, "I don't know who you are talking about." Though less personal to him, we were both drawn into the story.

Chandler-family_surfboards_.jpgAccording to this documentary, The Chandler Family is responsible for the development of Los Angeles from San Pedro to the San Fernando Valley. They took the Los Angeles times from being a tool for real estate development to a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper.

Although the story of the Chandlers is a good one, The Chandlers And Their Times is magnificent. With heroes and villains, mental illness and bigotry, the storytelling is compelling and though the tragic tales are told mostly in still pictures, I found myself glued to the television, riveted.

 As a friend, classmate and admirer of various Chandlers I could not possibly watch this with an objective eye. I sat wondering what my friends would think of this expose of their very private, incredibly wealthy family. I, like you, felt the odd combination of pride, curiosity and shame for peeking into the family photos of Los Angeles' most prominent family.

Dorothy-Chandler.jpgI'd never known of Dorothy "Buff" Chandler's difficulty being accepted into the family, though I did know that she'd been successful in uniting Downtown and Westside [read Protestant and Jewish] philanthropists in building the Music Center downtown. I knew before this viewing that her son Otis had been unceremoniously pushed out of his stewardship of the times.

  Otis-Chandler.jpgAs a blogger I couldn't help but watch the evolution of my newspaper with a psychic eye. Is this the destiny of the new media? What can we learn? The first years of the LA Times were lawless, profitable and existed only to feed other businesses ventures that were far more profitable. First standards were set, then huge journalistic milestones were hit, and in the blink of an eye there was fiscal ruin, and a loss of ownership.

What will we be left with? My city has Chandlers with their legacies and their fortunes, but we no longer have Their Times. I can't help but think that it's a paper without a soul, now that they have lost the family behind it.


Video Clips
Otis Chandler and His Family

A recorded phone conversation reveals former President Nixon's plan to investigate the Chandlers.

Unionists explode dynamite at the Times Headquarters during Harrison Gray Otis' reign as publisher.

Web Site 

Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times


Ken Burns' National Parks: America's Best Idea

The National Parks: America's Best Idea

A variety of performers and musicians gathered in New York's Central Park in Sept. 2009 in celebration of the Ken Burns documentary series THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA's BEST IDEA.


Shelton Johnson, park ranger for Yosemite National Park talks about the importance of visiting national parks.


Adam Duritz of Counting Crows talks about his friend and hero Ken Burns 

adam.gifCheck out all of the interviews with concert musicians and others associated with the film on PBS' YouTube Channel - YouTube playlist

And check out Concert & backstage photos