Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Doing the League Justice

The first wave of comic book superheroes and their screen adaptations (often as serials) was in the 1930s and 40s when economic upheaval and the spread of tyranny left ordinary individuals feeling anything but empowered. It’s hard not to think something similar is behind the surge in the genre’s popularity in the 21st century; even though the obstacles and imminent threats (most of them anyway) are less existential now than 80 years ago, they seem even less tractable. The heroes and antiheroes of our fantasies tell more about us than perhaps we really want to know. The latest big budget production in theaters is Justice League.

The majority of critics have not been kind to Justice League. The film undoubtedly has shortcomings, and I’ll address a big one before briefly explaining why I like it anyway.

In ancient Western culture the longest-running philosophical war (fought with true rancor) was between the Epicureans and the Stoics, the former identifying pleasure as the core value and the latter duty. In reality, the practical life prescriptions of both were nearly identical. The Epicureans advised moderation and doing the right thing, for in the long run those are the most pleasurable; overindulgence and bad behavior lead to pain rather than pleasure. The Stoics advised the same thing but because it’s your duty, damn it, whether it’s pleasurable or not. The Epicureans regarded Stoics as joyless and hypocritical. The Stoics regarded the Epicureans as decadent; they feared that enshrining pleasure as the highest goal posed a threat to civilization. Neither ever did quite get the hang of the other, for they had fundamentally different ways of thinking even though they arrived in the same place.

What on earth has any of this to do with a comic book superhero movie? The ancient feud links oddly to two ways to arrive at being a committed hero or villain (or bystander for that matter) whether in life or the movies. The choice can be made and pursued earnestly, taking oneself seriously (stoically) along the way. Characters in Zack Snyder’s films (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, Man of Steel, et al.) take themselves very very seriously even when they joke, which they do only sparingly. Alternatively, one can pick a side for fundamentally aesthetic reasons (in epicurean fashion) without taking oneself seriously or losing a sense of the absurd. Characters in Joss Whedon movies (The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods, Serenity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, et al.) are very much of this type. The two types tend to regard each other respectively as coldly uptight and dangerously frivolous – unfairly in both cases. Director Zack Snyder developed Justice League but left for personal reasons before finishing; the movie then was handed to Joss Whedon to carry over the goal line. The whole movie in consequence has a split personality. True, the Flash is very much a Joss character and Superman very much a Zack, but the others waver back and forth discordantly.

That caveat notwithstanding (and we even can allow that real personalities are not always consistent), the movie gives as much backstory and motivation as one reasonably can expect in two hours for a sizable ensemble of characters. The film even manages to make Aquaman cool, which is no small feat in itself.

Plot in a nutshell: an ancient enemy named Steppenwolf in the distant past was defeated by an alliance of Atlanteans, Amazons, and mankind (with some help from the old gods). He is back and still holds a grudge. He plans to recover three hidden artifacts that he can use to turn earth into his kind of place, which isn’t a place healthy for ordinary folks. If this sounds similar to General Zod’s plan in Man of Steel, you’re right. To stop them, Batman, who is on a guilt trip over his actions in Batman v Superman that led to the death of Superman, teams with Wonder Woman and they recruit the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. They get a notion about using one of the artifacts to try to restore life to Superman.

Have we seen all the CGI wiz-bang before? Yes. In broad outlines, is the plot original? No. But the elements are handled competently and the characters are better motivated (and better conflicted) than in the Marvel ensemble movies – though for reasons not relevant to this review I still give the edge to the Marvel movies. No one expects a comic book movie to be Shakespeare, but the dialogue has wit, the action paces well, the plot follows a comprehensible arc, and the imperfect heroes do what they have to do. Further, in an era when the news is dominated by the transgressions of dirty old men and naughty teachers, the script isn’t afraid to acknowledge adult sensuality as not being inherently offensive and perverse. (When did that become brave?) In short, while not a great film, it is good for its type. In the DC movie-verse since Nolan’s Batman trilogy, only Wonder Woman is better.

It remains to be seen if audiences take to it. Ticket sales for the opening weekend are disappointing. My own experience wasn’t encouraging. While I caught a far-from-prime-time 10 PM showing on Sunday night, it was nonetheless spooky that I was – no kidding – the only one in the theater. There were quite a few cars in the lot when I left so presumably other screens in the multiplex had viewers.

Thumbs up – with reservations, but up.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Fest Finale: Recap NJRD vs GSR

Yesterday the New Jersey Roller Derby (NJRD) went the extra mile – or perhaps 26.2 – and hosted an all-day derby event at their home track in Morristown including various mixers, a Junior Division exhibition bout, a men’s match, and their own regularly scheduled bout. Even a dedicated derby fan doesn’t always have a full day to commit to spectating derby, so I arrived in the evening in time for the last minutes of the men’s match in which the New York Shock Exchange (in this context the “home” team) handily defeated the Quadfathers 280-67, and then remained for the final regular bout of the day.

Recap – New Jersey Roller Derby All Stars (NJRD) vs. Garden State Rollergirls Jersey City Bridge and Pummel (GSR):

The two teams have very similar styles and defensive tactics, which showed in a point spread that was never safe at any point. (Two of the GSR skaters, Voldeloxx and Bitty Boom Boom, formerly skated for Morristown teams.) In the first jam #44 Maulin Rouge overcame stiff resistance with her usual √©lan and put the first 9 points on the board for NJRD. #394 Voldeloxx scored first for GSR. Both teams were very good at maintaining blocking walls and breaking up the opponent’s formations. Rarely did jammers find any holes simply to slip through, though fancy footwork by #11 Tuff Crust Pizza for NJRD and #1865 Ivy Lethal for GSR more than once got them past on the outside or inside line. More often jammers had to slog through firm blocking and pick themselves up from knockdowns. In the first half hour NJRD built and continuously maintained a lead that wavered around 20 points, with the half-time score at 72-56.

In the second half, GSR chipped at the NJRD lead with “hit it and quit it” jams until a game-changer power jam by #12 Tess T Rossa tightened up the score to 89-84. #14 Ragna Rok took NJRD over the 100 mark and Tess T Rossa did the same for GSR with NJRD keeping a few point lead. The reversal came when a 14 point jam by Ivy Lethal put GSR in the lead 122-116 for the first time with 9 minutes left in the game. GSR added points in hit-and-quit jams. A 20 point by Tess T Rossa seemed to seal the match, but then was countered by a 22 point jam by Tuff Crust Pizza. It wasn’t enough to catch up as the clock ran down. GSR took the win 139-153.

MVPs –
Tess T Rossa (jammer)
Ozzie Clobberpot (blocker)

Tuff Crust Pizza (jammer)
Slam Hathaway (blocker)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Cat Wars

There always were pets in and around the house when I was growing up: dogs, cats, even a skunk. During the few years of my ill-fated marriage the pet population reached a peak of two dogs, two cats, one parrot, and six horses, though strictly speaking the horses weren’t in and around the house. However, none of the animals in my childhood was mine per se: they were family pets. Of the marital pets, only one cat was mine: all the other animals were quite thoroughly hers. Nor did I seek a pet at any time during the long single stretches of adulthood. While I like domestic animals well enough, they struck me from the beginning as an unnecessary restraint on spontaneity; the needs of a pet must be taken into account before making any other plans and I figured I had responsibilities enough. Yet, despite this predisposition, I have owned one or more cats (to the extent one ever owns cats) continuously since 1985. One thing just led to another, as so many things in life do, and there they were.

My cabin in the woods 1985: rather less
scary than The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Once again, it wasn’t my plan to be a cat person. Back in the spring of ’85 I was living in my cabin in the woods. It wasn’t much, but it was mine; it was the first real estate that was in my own name. Meanwhile, my sister Sharon recently had moved back from California and had rented a little place on a side street in Randolph. A stray cat showed up at her door in midwinter and she took it in. Sharon’s hippie days were gone but not forgotten, so she named the cat Dandelion. Two months later when the cat had four kittens she struggled to find homes for them. She kept one (Tiger Lily) but found a taker only for one more; so, I pitched in and took two. (I wasn’t the best of brothers, but I was occasionally not terrible.) So, I became a cat person. One of those two, a Sylvester-lookalike named Succotash, was with me for 20 years.

In 1998 my parents were gifted (not by me) two kittens, also from a rescued stray. They named the kittens Maxi and Mini. My dad died in 2000 and my mom in 2001 so the cats became mine. I flirted with renaming them Charm and Strange just so I could say “We all have our little quarks,” but in the end I stuck with Maxi and Mini since the names had become pleasantly ironic: Mini had grown huge while Maxi remained small and lanky. A miniature table with feeding bowls still says “the three cats” on it, though Succotash died in 2005 and Mini in 2015. Maxi endures. If he recovers from his current troubles, he has a good chance of reaching his 20th birthday next spring.

Return of the hunter
For most of his life Maxi was the least affectionate cat I’ve ever owned. He would tolerate without fuss being picked up or petted, but he never sought it out and would strut off as soon as you let him go; he wouldn’t run away, but he would go away. He was just barely tame and would disappear into the woods for up to three days at a time. (Mini, by contrast, never in her life wandered out of sight of the house.) More than once I gave him up for lost only to see him trotting back toward the house carrying a chipmunk or dragging a rabbit. He had a special fondness for rabbits, some of them almost as big as himself. (Yes, he gets his regular shots.) As he grew older his disappearances grew shorter. Only once in the past year did he vanish for a full day, and it has been four years since he brought back anything bigger than a mouse. It has been two since he brought back anything at all. He liked to nap next to Mini (who was an expert napper), and when she died he became much more personable to humans: particularly to me. Since 2015 he daily has sought out attention.

The troublemaker I've nicknamed Ragamuffin
At 19 he is an old cat – the average lifespan for a housecat is 16 years – but he doesn’t know it, which causes him trouble when he encounters other cats. Trouble happened a few days ago when I left the door open behind me while carrying a bag of trash to the bin next to the garage. Nothing seemed amiss when I came back in, so I grabbed my keys and went out to lunch. When I came back, bowls of cat food and water were spilled on the kitchen floor; I looked for Maxi and found him in a bedroom. When I returned to the kitchen a (seemingly well-fed) calico cat was standing there; she apparently had come in during the garbage run. I opened the back door and let her out, but some drama had occurred around the bowls. I didn’t think much about it until yesterday when Maxi plainly had an infection from a fight wound above his left eye. I received a few minor fight wounds in turn while getting him into the carrying case for the trip to the veterinarian, who drained the infection. I’m still hot-packing it regularly and Maxi still is lethargic, but he has been through worse in the past.
Maxi after the vet

I’m hoping Maxi recovers and shares my company for a good while longer. However, while the felines in my life have given me more pleasure than pain, I won’t be getting another. After all, were there a “next one” he might outlive me. Of course, so might Maxi. One never knows for sure about such things.

Opening sequence: Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

November 12, 2017 Recap: Jerzey Derby Brigade vs. Suburbia Roller Derby Backyard Bullies

Last night the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) hosted long-time adversaries the Backyard Bullies, hailing from Westchester County NY, at JDB’s home track in Morristown NJ.

JDB scored the first points with jams by #235 A-Bomb and #3684 Californikate. #1952 Queen Elizadeath II, skating with exceptional speed, put the first points on the board for the Bullies. From the beginning blocking was strong on both teams with a noticeable difference in styles: JDB somewhat more often held its formations and the Bullies were somewhat more often flexible – but only somewhat in each case. JDB gained a substantial, but still vulnerable, lead thanks to a 15 point power jam by Californikate followed by a 13 point jam by #8 Lil Mo Peep bringing the score to 50-4. The points were gained against stiff opposition with #1234 Revengela taking down Lil Mo Peep and solid double-teaming by #5 Aldanamite and #555 Aya Yai. The Bullies added points of their own with #84 Moonie Sweets scoring against hard blocking. The first half ended with JDB leading 101-32.

The second half began with A-bomb adding 20 points for JDB in a power jam. Effective blocking on both sides led to take-downs, pile-ups, and at least one injury. #92 Partygirl Accelerator repeatedly had successful jams for the Bullies as did #1952, which finally began to chip at the nearly 100 point lead built up by JDB. Queen Elizadeath II put the Bullies over the century mark to 190-105. Californikate, despite a hard takedown, then took JDB over 200 at 206-110. Neither team let up as the clock ran down. In the final jam of the game #1952 Queen Elizadeath II broke out to be lead jammer but #8 Lil Mo Peep was close behind; both scored points against stiff blocking with Lil Mo Peep putting the last points on the board. Final Score: 254-161 in favor of JDB.

MVPs –
Backyard Bullies:
#1952 Queen Elizadeath II (jammer)
#555 Aya Yai (blocker)

#8 Lil Mo Peep (jammer)
#93 Freudian Slap (blocker)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Romans, Levelers, and Wicked Thoughts

Nonfiction occupied my bedside table the past couple of weeks. Brief reviews are below of four that are worth a read:

**** ****

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper

What is there to say about the fate of Rome that hasn’t been said before? Didn’t Gibbon say it all more than 200 years ago? He surely said a lot, but not quite all. (The six-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is still a superb read though.) Gibbon and two centuries of historians after him focused on internal social, political, and economic factors in combination with a rising barbarian threat. Those were indeed crucial ingredients in the slow-motion collapse, but in 1976 William H. McNeil in Plagues and Peoples argued that microbes gave a final push over the edge. In the pre-vaccine/pre-antibiotic ancient world, diseases were demographically devastating.

Kyle Harper reports on recent DNA sequencing from Roman graves that confirms most of McNeil’s suspicions about the identity of various ancient epidemics. The Antonine Plague was indeed smallpox and it ravaged the Empire (Marcus Aurelius himself died of it) at a time when the barbarians on the Rhine and Danube were on the offensive. Even more devastating was the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century, which has been identified as bubonic plague and which killed half the population. Bubonic plague was particularly deadly because the primary vector was not person to person but from flea-bearing rats to people. Rats were as prevalent in the countryside where most of the population lived as in the cities, so the plague was not, as most plagues were, mostly an urban event. (The lethality was demonstrated again and for the same reason when it returned as the Black Death 800 years later.) The demographic and economic destruction wreaked by it put a permanent end to hopes of recovering the Western provinces.

As his own contribution to the literature, Harper then tells us that one more pressure on the Empire has been much overlooked: climate change. The Roman Empire’s great centuries (1st century BCE through 2nd century CE) were during the Roman Climatic Optimum, an unusually warm and wet period ideal for expansive agriculture. Climate then swung erratically due to natural causes (volcanoes, solar variability, ocean currents, etc.) before settling into the Antique Little Ice Age after 450 CE. This curtailed agriculture and interacted unexpectedly with diseases: fleas that died in hot summers, for example, survived when summers were cooler. Harper explains the various methods including soil, plant, and ice samples by which ancient climate can be reconstructed. Harper doesn’t make the mistake of attributing Rome’s decline specifically to climate just because it is his own special interest, but he tells us it was one more nail in the coffin.

**** ****

Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day by Philip Matyszak

The Roman Empire ended as all things do but it had a good run. What was it like actually to live there? Books purporting to explain everyday life in ancient Rome have been around for centuries, but they typically are such dry reading that it’s easy for one’s eyes to glaze over. Matyszak gets around this with his travel guide aimed at a 21st century reader who presumably has access to a time machine. He starts us off not in Rome but in Alexandria in order to experience the trip to the city. We get all-important practical advice, such as to use traveler’s checks instead of cash. Yes, really. Shipping companies doubled as banks: their reps in Alexandria would give you scrip in exchange for your coins and this could be exchanged for gold at the company’s office in Ostia (Rome’s port city), thereby making you less of a target for thieves on the trip.

By internal evidence, the guide puts us in the time of Severus when the city is at its height. Matyszak tells us how to get a room in Rome, how to buy fast foods, where to find public toilets, how to use the public baths, where the best brothels are, what neighborhoods are dangerous after dark, and so on. And, of course, he tells about the must-see sites, many of them still in existence today in various degrees of repair, such as the baths, aqueducts, and temples. There are a lot of them. We are told what is polite and what is rude in Roman society, how the sexes interact, and how the classes interact. There also is the list of handy phrases.

All-in-all it is a pleasant romp and a painless way to get at least some inkling of what it was like to visit the ancient city. If you do happen to be a time traveler, it will save you many denarii, too.

**** ****

The Great Leveler by Walter Sheidel

Walter Sheidel, professor at Stanford, studies economic inequality from Neolithic times to the present. His book is neither a polemic against inequality nor a defense of it (though his predisposition to “against” is evident), but rather a well-researched examination of it over time. It is full of charts and Gini coefficients. In general, he finds inequality tends to increase over time in any and all types of societies with any and all types of governments provided economic trends are stable or trending upward. This, he contends, has to do with the relative scarcity of capital to labor and with the intertwinement of wealth and the governing elites. The exceptions to the general rule – the times of great leveling – involve “the four horsemen”: total war, Revolution, systems collapse, and plague.

Smallish wars won’t do it. Wars with full mobilization do, for they involve intense labor demand in the military and in industry and intensive taxation to pay for it. Also mass destruction of property in war naturally costs the people who own the property. They have more to lose, so massive destruction has a leveling effect. Revolution on a grand scale as in Russia and China in the last century certainly lowered inequality but at a staggering human cost. Collapses, such as those of the Roman Empire and the Tang Dynasty, wiped out the old aristocracies and thereby increased equality until the new aristocracies built their wealth up. The economic collapse of the Great Depression also was a leveler by destroying the asset values of those who had assets. Plagues, which formerly carried off large percentages of the population (upward of a third of population of Europe in the Black Death) actually lead to increases in median living standards (rather than just killing or bankrupting the rich with no benefit to anyone else) by spreading around the assets of the deceased and increasing the demand for labor. The greatest leveling in history took place in the time spanning the two world wars, the Depression, the accompanying Revolutions, the creation of social welfare states that the crises made possible, and the rebuilding after the wars. Yet, after the rebuilding was done (the 1970s) inequality again ticked upward including in social democracies.

Whether one views inequality as a problem in itself or no problem at all if other incomes are rising or stable, the book provides a treasure trove of data. Sheidel doesn’t anticipate change anytime soon and worries what it might look like if it does arrive: “For thousands of years, history has alternated between long stretches of rising or high and stable inequality interspersed with violent compressions… All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions, it was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for.”

**** ****

A Billion Wicked Thoughts by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

Anyone who ever has, say, looked up “2018 Silverado” online only to find Chevy ads on the next five websites he visits knows that Web searches are not secret. In general, only AIs designed for commercial purposes bother to read them, but they are vast data sources for anyone who wants to use them for other purposes.

Neuroscientists Ogas and Gaddam analyzed 55 million sexually oriented search terms compiled by Dogpile, broke them down into categories, and tried to see what these searches tell us about human sexuality. The answers are creepy but intriguing. Some of them are totally unsurprising, such as the conclusions that men overwhelmingly search for visual porn while online romance novels, albeit raunchier than the softcovers sold in stores are almost exclusively accessed by women (though there are female targeted porn sites). The plots of those romances are most commonly fiercely un-PC, and then there are the female-targeted EroRoms about romances of gay men. Porn searches – whether straight or gay oriented – are often counterintuitive to put it gently: Yes, teen cheerleaders are popular searches, but the fifth most popular male search term is “grannies” and the third is “mom?” Beyond the (almost mundane) BDSM searches there are amazingly specific fetishes: the authors only slightly exaggerate when they remark, “Type in ‘Find people who have sex with goats that are on fire’ and the computer will say ‘Specify the kind of goat.’” The findings show a divergence in male and female interests greater than whatever you think it is, and the nuances of straight and gay searches offer material on which to ponder.

Though the reader may have the urge to wash his or her hands after putting down the book, it offers a perspective on and information about our fellow human beings (and perhaps ourselves) that might never be shared in a public forum. Online, in presumed privacy, we reveal our wicked ways and thoughts.

Dorothy – Wicked Ones

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Sanguinary Cinema

Anti-heroes long have been a staple of literature. Shakespeare is full of them. So, for that matter is Homer: it’s hard to put Paris in a good light. So, too, in cinema, e.g. the pre-code Night Nurse (1931) at the end of which (*spoiler*) Barbara Stanwyck’s likable gangster boyfriend bumps off the scheming and unlikable Nick (Clark Gable) and gets away with it; in the context of the film, this is a happy ending. Hitmen and hitwomen have held a particular fascination for screenwriters. Why? I surely have no definitive answer, but one may note that even the most committed defenders of the law and the state chafe under their restrictions. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud explicitly argues that thwarting the death instinct’s destructiveness is inescapably a cause of individual unhappiness but is a price worth paying for civilization. Identifying with lawless screen characters for a couple hours is a harmless way vicariously to take one’s death instinct out for a walk.

The occasion for the above prelude is a DVD spin yesterday of a commercially successful 2008 flick about an organization of assassins. I missed it back when it was in the theater. Before visiting it, however, I decided first to revisit a film noir classic of the genre.

**** ****

This Gun for Hire (1942)

Though gangsters who count murder among their crimes long had been stock figures in movies, this is one of the earliest films to make a specialized hitman the central character. Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) delivers his lines and his bullets deadpan. Unlike what the trailer for the movie indicates, he doesn’t kill for the love of it or for no reason, but when he has a reason (usually it’s just a job) he is utterly ruthless and has no hesitation at all about eliminating witnesses who just happen to be in the wrong place; in one scene he reaches for his gun when a little girl speaks to him as he leaves a job, but then puts it away when he notices she is blind. Yet, real human beings – even psychopaths – are not robots and we quickly see that there are some emotions behind the expressionless face. He likes cats, for one thing.

Willard Gates, a corpulent personal representative of a corrupt and treasonous wheelchair-bound industrialist, hires Raven for a job but pays him in marked bills so he’ll be arrested. Raven evades arrest but then seeks out Gates for revenge. Gates is a curiously drawn character who behaves outwardly as a womanizer, though his relationship with his chauffeur/aide is plainly the closer one. Raven’s path intersects that of nightclub performer Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) who is working for the feds undercover, a job she must keep secret even from her policeman boyfriend. She, too, is after Gates. The feds suspect that Gates’ boss is selling secrets to the Japanese – this is 1942.

The modestly budgeted movie in so many ways is incredibly hokey and timebound, and yet it has flashes of deeper sophistication than most recent films of its type. It’s a very 1940s combination of opposites, and it’s an appealing one. Some critics dislike the way Raven opens up to Ellen in one scene, giving us a Freudian partial explanation for his nature: he was severely abused growing up. I think it’s a very useful scene that helps put his odd relationship with Ellen in context; despite her youth he relates to her (again, the trailer misleads) as someone maternal, not romantic, which is why he seeks her approval at the end.

Still a Thumbs Up.

**** ****

Wanted (2008)

The 1954 comic book code has been ignored by publishers for more than four decades, yet Mark Millar’s utterly nihilistic comic book series Wanted (2003-05) is still notable for violating every proscription in it. In an intriguingly dark narrative, Wanted confirms every nightmare you ever had that the world really is run by a sociopathic criminal elite. The narrating character embraces his own psychopathy and membership in that elite, and then scoffs at the reader for being a sucker.

The movie adaptation balks at adopting the full nihilism of the source. In the comic the coterie of assassins and villains are purely and unabashedly self-serving. In the movie Wanted, they are an ancient order of assassins working on behalf of fate – or perhaps, more properly, Fate – whose designs can be deciphered from the weave of fabric. (This harkens to classical mythology and the tapestry of the Fates.) They might not understand why certain targets are chosen for them, but they assume they are serving some higher purpose. Nonetheless, in pursuance of that purpose they have no qualms about any and all criminal activity or collateral damage. Despite the change of motivation from the comic, the movie is every bit as nonstop action-packed, brutal, and bloody.

Wesley (James McAvoy) is a meek nobody in a nothing job with an abusive boss. His girlfriend is cheating on him with his best friend, and he pretends not to know it rather than face the reality. He encounters Fox (Angelina Jolie) who tells him he is the son of an elite assassin and that he has inherited many of his father’s innate abilities. She introduces him to the order of assassins presided by Sloan (Morgan Freeman) and takes over his training. Wesley no longer is a nobody. Bullets fly, cars crash, trains wreck, fists swing, and blood flows.

Despite the alterations from Millar’s comic, I’ll give it a cautious Thumbs Up. But be aware that it requires a high tolerance for movie violence. While the movie got mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics including Roger Ebert, Peter Bradshaw (“You could gargle bitumen and bin-juice for half an hour, and it couldn't leave a nastier taste in your mouth…”) at The Guardian was not alone in his reaction.

**** ****

After watching both movies I still don’t have a definitive answer about their appeal to audiences, but they are cathartic in their own way. For the next few days I have no wish to see anything more savage than, perhaps, Disney’s Tangled.

Trailer: This Gun for Hire (1942)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Forever Sumer

The most recent book to ease my nighttime passage to drowsiness provided some new insights about the megalithic complex at Gobekli Tepe in Asia Minor (see my September 26 blog Mabon) even though it didn’t specifically mention the site. Gobekli Tepe is remarkable for having been built by hunter-gatherers 12,000 years ago. Animal bones found at the site are from wild prey animals, not farm animals, and there is no hint of cultivated crops or permanent settlements. It is presumably a temple complex of some kind. The time that passed between its construction and the construction of the first cities was thousands of years greater than the time that has passed between the first cities and today. So, our prehistoric ancestors had the skills to build massive masonry structures even before the last ice age ended, but they didn’t bother to use them to build cities until (in the scheme of things) quite recently. If you count from the first appearance of modern humans some 200,000 years ago, it was very very recently.

Why not? The answer, while tautological, seems simply to be they didn’t want to. According to Yale professor James C. Scott in his book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States they had good reason. It long has been known that hunter-gatherers were healthier, fitter, and had a far better and more varied diet than the farmers who supplanted them. Even today, remaining hunter-gatherers work far less than farmers despite living in truly marginal landscapes such as the Kalahari. In the rich lands of well-watered Paleolithic middle latitudes, game and edible vegetation were abundant. Skeletons from after the switch to farming show a severe decline in average human size and health including dental health: grains are bad for the teeth. The question to ask is why with all its advantages did most people give up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Once again, the answer is they didn’t want to. Scott tells us the reason is intimately connected with the rise of states and the use of force.

Scott reminds us that the technologies of farming and pastoralism (the Neolithic Revolution) did not immediately or inevitably lead to states. There were clans, bands, and tribes to be sure, but their chiefs and councils had little authority: it was too easy for individuals and their families just to walk away if self-styled leaders got too overbearing. The new food-gathering methods simply supplemented a stateless hunter-gatherer economy. A good example are the Lenni Lenape who several hundred years ago inhabited the inland northern NJ area where I presently live. In the spring they hunted and gathered but also planted maize crops; in the summer they left for the Jersey Shore where they took in some rays and seafood; they returned in the fall to harvest the maize. Yet, their settlements were no more than semi-permanent, it was no disaster if the crops failed, and it always was possible for disgruntled individuals to walk away.

All the elements necessary for a city-state to survive pre-existed urbanism by thousands of years: farmed crops, domestic animals, and artisans such as masons and toolmakers. Yet, states didn’t arise spontaneously even in those regions where sedentism was the rule – sedentism is not at conflict with foraging economies in biologically rich environments. Scott points out that all of the regions where early states arose – Upper Egypt, the Maya, the Yellow River, and southern Mesopotamia – shared some things in common: rising populations that were constrained by geography (such as deserts on each side) in such a way that made it difficult for residents just to walk away when some brigand called himself “king” and enforced his rule with a gang of thugs. The new rulers were able to force the bulk of local populations to labor to produce calorie surpluses that could be expropriated for urban dwellers. Outright slavery formed a large part of the labor force but even more important was taxation. Demanding taxes in the form of food forced farmers, under severe penalties in the case of non-payment, to work their land harder than they would if left to themselves. The very first city-states were Sumerian, and a Sumerian proverb (found on a clay tablet c.2400 BCE) says, “You can have a landlord, you can have a king, but the man to fear is the tax-collector.”

This is why grain became a staple crop. Unlike some other crops, fields of barley or wheat are impossible to hide and easy to quantify. Furthermore, one bushel of grain is pretty much like another making it ideal currency for taxation. Grain farming prevailed because governments demanded tax payments in grain. Taxation in turn required accountants and records, which promoted writing and the other trappings of civilization. Yet, except for the urban elites, civilization was so unattractive an existence that most of the world resisted it for a very long time. In 2000 BCE, notes Scott, states were “a mere smudge on the map of the ancient world and not much more than a rounding error in a total global population estimated at roughly 25 million…” Even at the height of the Roman Empire and its Chinese counterpart the vast majority of the world’s land surface was occupied by stateless peoples.

There is no denying the demographic and military advantages that accrued over time to civilized states, which eventually let them spread over the habitable land area of the earth so that now there is no escaping them – but this did take time. Personally, I’m mostly OK with civilization in its current form and would like to see more of it. I like my permanent home and the farmed foods in my refrigerator, though come tax-time I still agree with that grumbling Sumerian. But it is worth remembering the brutal origins of civilization in the first urban states, and what a price was paid for it by our ancestors. The Sumerians have a lot for which to answer.

Sirenia – In Sumerian Haze