“Can you hear me now?”

October 29, 2010


Image from Progresso ad

The recent series of TV ads for Progresso soup has got more of my attention than ad campaigns usually do. It isn’t the soup that interests me – although I like Progresso soup — especially wedding soup and escarole soup. No, it’s the gimmick that ties, as it were, the several ads together — the two-cans-and-a-string telephone.

When I was a kid, I loved to fool around with such a device. Anything that allowed one person to talk to another person over a distance was a source of fascination to me, and two cans and a string was in that genre. What I especially like about it — note the present tense — is that it is such simple and clear demonstration of the physical laws that make it work. In that regard, it is more elegant to me than the Blackberry now lying on my desk.


The Progresso ads, in some cases, ignore the principle at work, because they show the string hanging slack or turning corners. In neither case would the device work, of course, because the string must be tense and unencumbered so that the vibration of the bottom of one can — caused by the sound waves of a voice — can transfer to the string and create the identical vibration in the bottom of the can at the other end. I was reminded of the beauty of this technical achievement a decade or so ago when the boyfriend of one of my daughters was visiting our house and asked about the 1927 model Victrola that stood in a corner of our basement. His question was in the vein of, “What is that?” I opened the lid, put a shellac disk on the turntable, wound the spring and released the brake, and showed the young man how the sound was transfered in turn from the grooves of the record, onto the needle, up a metal wire, onto the isinglass membrane of the head, through the hollow tone arm, and through the amplifying horn out into the air. The postmodern lad was delighted to see what once was done without electricity, never mind electronics.

Corbis Images

I remember who showed me how to put two cans and a string to such remarkable use. It was Frank Brady, both a friend of our family and an employee in our family’s grocery store. I don’t know if my grandsons have yet been exposed to the deeply satisfying experience of stripping the paper labels off two cans, puncturing the centers of both bottoms, inserting and knotting both ends of the string, and then stretching the line and achieving the technical miracle of remote communication.

I hope not. I’d like to be the one to show them.


We watched the 1983 Scottish film Local Hero, a charming send-up of corporate insensitivity that borders on fantasy. The story concerns a fictional American company, Knox Oil and Gas, which has plans to build a refinery on the coast of Scotland. The head of the company, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), blithely dispatches Knox hotshot “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) to buy an entire seaside village to be leveled for the project.


Mac conducts his negotiations through canny local hotel owner/accountant Gordon Urquhart (Dennis Lawson), and at first business moves along smoothly as the villagers look forward to exchanging their obscure existence for unexpected wealth.  But the company needs the beach as well as the town, and it develops that the beach is the property and the home of an old man coincidentally named Ben Knox (Fulton Mackay), whose family has held it for so long that the deed is displayed in a museum.


Happer is an eccentric who is more interested in astronomy than in oil and gas, and he instructs MacIntyre to file regular reports on what’s going on in the heavens over Scotland. MacIntyre regards himself as an inside man who could have negotiated the purchase over the phone, but Happer isn’t one to be contradicted, so the young man humors his boss by traveling to Ferness, a fictional place, and by reporting celestial phenomena including the aurora borealis, which excites even the blase MacIntyre.

While Mac and Gordon are trying to decide what to do about Ben Knox, Happer abruptly decides to fly from Texas to visit the village himself, attracted as much by what’s in the sky as by what’s on the ground. Thereupon hangs the climax and resolution of the story, so — to quote Cosmo Casterini — “I’ll say no more.”

This is an entertaining film, due in no small way to the charm of the residents of  Ferness. The plot, of course, is improbable, but this is just a good yarn, maybe all the better for being unlikely.

Lancaster’s role in this movie is limited, but I really grew to like him all over again when he reached a certain age and his on-screen persona changed to what  we saw in “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams.

Local Hero has an outstanding score — so much so that it has outsold the movie itself. It was written by Mark Knopfler of “Dire Straits.”

We watched The Legend of 1900, a 1998 fantasy produced byItalian filmmakers, shot in Italy and Ukraine, but performed in English.

The premise of this movie, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) is that at the turn of the 20th century someone traveling in steerage aboard a transatlantic steamer bears a male child and abandons it in the ship’s dining room. Danny, played by Bill Nunn, who works in the ship’s boiler room, finds the child and decides to secretly raise it himself.


Danny names the baby Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon 1900, combining his own name, an advertisement on the box the child was left in, and the year. When the boy is still young, Danny dies in a shipboard accident. The youngster stays on the ship and becomes a familiar figure. He is universally known simply as 1900.


In a development that is not explained, 1900 is attracted to the piano to the extent that he becomes a player of almost unparalleled skill. He joins the ship’s orchestra and his dazzling keyboard technique builds an international reputation for him. On one occasion, the famous jazz pianist “Jelly Roll” Morton – played by Clarence Williams III (late of “The Mod Squad”) arrives on the ship. Piqued by the implications of 1900’s reputation, Morton challenges the mysterious man to a piano duel.


This story is narrated by a mournful character named Max Toomey – played by Pruitt Taylor Vince – a trumpeter who gets a job with the ship’s orchestra and becomes 1900’s closest friend, although why the introverted musician is so comfortable with Toomey is unclear.

Max tries unsuccessfully to convince 1900 to leave the ship, establish a more normal life ashore, and capitalize further on his talent and fame.


Thanks in part to 1900’s understandable infatuation with an unnamed passenger played by Melanie Thierry, Max’s campaign almost succeeds. In the end, however, 1900 finds the seemingly limitless expanse of the world beyond the gangplank to be far too uncertain a prospect, and he never leaves the ship.

The concept of a man who spends his entire life on board a passenger ship makes for compelling fantasy, and we found this film engrossing on that account. I have read some criticism of Roth’s performance to the effect that he used too narrow a range of emotions, but I disagree. One can assume that a man whose physical movement was restricted to the confines of the ship would be confined in other ways as well – and emotions seems like an aspect of personality very likely to be affected. I also thought the reticence of the character made 1900 suitably eerie even while he was sympathetic and even endearing. In all, it’s an unusual and worthwhile film experience.