Tuesday, June 26, 2012


To err is human; to admit it superhuman. – Doug Larson

A history of the world could be written as a series of errors. Such a thematic approach would miss very little of importance.

Accidents are not solely a human prerogative. My cat frequently misjudges her leaps, and I’ve ended up on the ground more than once because a horse tripped or spooked at nothing. However, only humans can make mistakes on an industrial scale. The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico is just one of the latest. The famous bent pyramid in Giza appears to be a mid-course correction when the initial angle proved unstable, which brings to mind images of tumbling stone blocks and fleeing workers. In 1628 the spanking new Swedish warship Vasa rolled over and sank after sailing less than a mile on her maiden voyage – she was topheavy. Later in the century, Kronan, another Swedish warship also overturned while maneuvering in combat. In 1919 a storage tank broke in Boston sending a 4-meter wave of sticky molasses through the streets of Boston, killing 21 people and knocking buildings off their foundations. In 1947, a fire on the SS Grandcamp detonated 2300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which, along with consequent fires and explosions, leveled Texas City, Texas, killing 581 people and injuring 5000. At the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in 1979, a worker goofed by turning off the back-up cooling system which had kicked in perfectly when the primary system malfunctioned; there were no casualties, but there easily could have been. In 1981, a suspended walkway at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency collapsed killing 116 people. The most lives lost in a single industrial accident were in the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, where a release of deadly methyl isocyanate gas killed 3,787. Chernobyl’s explosion in Ukraine was in 1986.

None of these was due to a lack of supervision or regulation. On the contrary, in the case of Chernobyl, the accident occurred precisely because of a botched safety procedure. The Hyatt was built according to code and inspected by city inspectors. Besides, when safety rules become too onerous, they backfire; at an irradiation plant near where I live, for example, though no accident ensued, workers were found to have jammed open safety doors to bypass the hassle of getting through them every two minutes. Engineering philosophy today, accordingly, increasingly is to design for “passive safety” – to employ safety systems that work without any human intervention, and that resist human intervention. We try to remove the opportunity for someone to do something dangerously stupid. Even so, we’ll never be able to eliminate all major accidents. All one can say is that for any foolproof design, there always is a fool bigger than the proof.

This doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands. A reasonable amount of caution can go a long way, but we need to keep in mind that mistakes are normal. They are a cost of modern industrial life and always will be. It should be noted, though, that modern life is much safer on balance than the pre-industrial kind – all those many little accidents in the old days took a far greater toll than the fewer but bigger accidents of today. To forbid risk is itself extremely risky.

Still, there are ordinary risks and extraordinary risks. To risk the lives not just of thousands but of millions, we need to bring governments into the act. World War One was a colossal accident – a culmination of parallel errors and misjudgments by government leaders, not one of whom wanted a general European war. They got one anyway. It killed some 20 000 000 people, devastated the center of Europe, and made the world safe for fascism. Oops.

The remarkable thing is how often governments get away with rolling the dice. The brinksmanship in the Cuban missile crisis is an obvious example. Other times there are consequences, but not as big as they could have been. Take the Castle Bravo thermonuclear test in 1954.

In 1952, the US tested a hydrogen bomb, but it was the size of a factory and not a practical weapon. Edward Teller was largely responsible for designing a compact deliverable weapon. He solved a major timing problem (which isn’t relevant to the oops, so I’ll refrain from going into it here) and a smaller technical problem with D-T (deuterium and tritium: hydrogen isotopes with one and two neutrons respectively). In simplest terms, a fission (uranium or plutonium) trigger causes D-T to fuse into helium, thereby making an even bigger explosion. The trouble is that D-T easily leaks away. The solution was to replace D-T with lithium, which is stable and stores easily. When the fission trigger goes off, it emits neutrons which split the lithium atoms into D-T atoms (and helium), which in turn then fuse into helium. (Andrei Sakharov in the USSR came up with a similar design, beating the US team by a few months.)

The new US design was tested at Bikini Atoll. The US team underestimated how efficient the lithium conversion to D-T would be. The Castle Bravo test was expected to yield 5 megatons. Observers’ initial satisfaction turned to fear as the fireball grew and grew and continued to grow. The explosion was 15 megatons. The US observation ships were way too close – scarily close – and were caught in the fallout plume; personnel scrambled below decks to avoid overexposure. The navy and physicist team escaped casualties, more by luck than by planning. Less lucky were the 23 crewmen of the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru, which also was caught by the unexpectedly extensive fallout pattern. They received heavy radiation doses, from which one of the crew died, causing a major diplomatic crisis with Japan.

Yet, despite this recent example of an “oops” with a nuke, in 1962 the Kennedy Administration authorized an amazing test called Frigate Bird. The submarine USS Ethan Allen fired a Polaris SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile) in the first and only test of a ballistic missile with a live thermonuclear warhead. The warhead detonated 2000 meters from the intended target (pretty accurate by the standards of the day) with a yield of 600 kilotons. The idea, of course, was to demonstrate that the missiles were not a bluff: they actually worked. Yet, while there was no “oops” on the occasion of Frigate Bird, the recklessness of the test is breathtaking. We know full well how unreliable rockets and guidance systems can be. That warhead could have come down anywhere. Hawaii was well within range. There was a radio-activated self-destruct device built into this particular missile for emergencies, but this, too, easily could have failed.

No one conducts open-air testing of nuclear explosives anymore, which is fortunate, but the gambles taken by leaders in the capitals of nations around the world are not limited to weapons and war. They also include budgets and central banks. Their mistakes are harder to outrun than molasses.

Castle Bravo

Frigate Bird

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Last Picture Shows

In my DVD revisit project (see older post Of Dust and Disks), I’ve finally reached the end of the last shelf, though I excluded one whole shelf of movies I expect to revisit anyway without prompting. Among the last re-watches (I don’t pocket-review them all) in the project were the following:

The Snow Beast (1977) from the Chiller Classics 50 pack. In a generally atrocious pack of movies, this flick proved surprisingly watchable. It would be wrong to call it good, but for a low-budget made-for-TV monster movie, it’s passable. A murderous yeti/sasquatch is haunting the slopes around a Colorado ski resort. As always in this type of tale, the authorities and resort-operators refuse to believe that there is a monster, even while the body count mounts. At least the hero, when at last confronting the beast, does not say, “We’re going to need a bigger snowmobile.”

Wild Bill (1995). This Western starring Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok and Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane didn’t click with audiences when it came out, though critics liked it. All films take liberties with historical characters, but this is about as accurate as it is reasonable to expect a Hollywood movie about Hickok to be. The man, his times, and the strange events leading to his death, emerge all too credibly. Perhaps that was why audiences balked: the movie was not sufficiently escapist. Nevertheless, I recommend giving it a chance.

Alien Trespass (2009). This is not so much a spoof of 1950s sci-fi movies as an homage to them. Had it been released in 1958 it would have fit right in. I think this accounts for the movie’s poor rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Nowadays, few young viewers are familiar enough with 50s sci-fi to have the affection for it that these filmmakers obviously do. I recommend the movie, but only to those who have seen and enjoyed films such as It Came from Outer Space (1953) or I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958).

Hands Across the Table (1935) from the Carole Lombard multipack. Regi (Carole), a manicurist, and Ted (Fred MacMurray), a slacker whose family lost its fortune in the Crash, both openly want to marry for money. Both have a chance to do precisely that, though they chide each other for being so cynical. Regi says, “You must have a lot of friends that could give you a job.” Ted responds, “That'd be a fine friend who'd give you a job. No friend of mine had better try anything like that on me.” Every film in this pack is worth seeing, but this one more than most. Besides the comedy aspects, the subplot of the wealthy man in a wheelchair (Ralph Bellamy) who loves Regi is poignant.

Bitch Slap (2009). What can you possibly expect from a movie called Bitch Slap? A shameless exploitation flick with beautiful busty women in miniskirts and high heels fighting each other with fists, swords, and guns? Well, that is exactly what it is. Think Kill Bill but with less plot, more girl-on-girl violence, and 1/1000 of the budget. Though very few clothes are in evidence, there is no actual nudity. Three gorgeous women, at least one of whom is a mercenary, drive out into the desert with an obnoxious kidnapped man in the trunk in order to find $200,000,000 in buried diamonds and some sort of weapon. In many ways this film is reminiscent of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! (1965), but with more brutality, mayhem, and scabrous dialogue. Oddly, there are small parts for Lucy Lawless (Xena) and Kevin Sorbo (Hercules), presumably because both were amused by this campy script. I can’t recommend in conscience this film to anybody, yet I can’t deny having enjoyed every awful minute of it.

Red Rock West (1993). This is one of those small noir-ish films that gratify beyond expectation. A down and out roughneck (Nicolas Cage) doesn’t get the oil-field job he desperately needs in Wyoming, but he is mistaken in a local bar for a tardy hit man. The bar owner offers him a large sum of cash to kill his wife. Cage then discovers that she, in turn, has plans to off her husband. The plot twists and turns as Cage’s efforts to leave town are thwarted time and again. This film should be on the to-see list of any noir fan

The Big Town (1987). This is another neo-noir that deserves to be better known than it is. Set in 1957, this is a well-written and well-acted drama. The sound track, with Ivory Joe Hunter, Lincoln Chase, and Big Joe Turner, among others, is perfect. J.C. Cullen (Matt Dillon), is a small town gambler trying to make it big in Chicago. Tommy Lee Jones and Bruce Dern are in fine form as villains, Lee Grant is convincingly hard-nosed, and Diane Lane as the stripper Lorry Dane was never more stunning in a role.

Across the Pacific (1942) from the Humphrey Bogart pack. Set just prior to Pearl Harbor aboard a Japanese passenger ship bound for Asia via Panama, Bogart uncovers a Japanese plan to strike at the Panama Canal locks with an assembled aircraft. Actually, this would have been a pretty good idea. Amid the predictable wartime stereotypes, there are some surprises in the film, including Bogie’s acknowledgment that peace eventually will have to return on a basis of mutual respect. This film is not up there with Casablanca or To Have and Have Not, but it’s still good.

Red Riding Hood (2011). Despite reviews clustered somewhere between "eh" and "so-so," I enjoyed this tale of a young woman and a big bad wolf. We’ve been getting a lot of re-imaginings of classic folk tales lately. Red Riding Hood is not the best of them, but it is filmed beautifully and the handling of the story is OK – no more than OK, but OK. Amanda Seyfried is a suitable and attractive heroine. As for the central mystery, I've heard the complaint, "I saw it coming." Well, I didn't the first time. To be sure, the werewolf is a logical suspect, but only one of several. After all, it's supposed to be a logical suspect. Mystery fans consider it cheating when there are no proper clues amid the red herrings; they hate it when the culprit in the final reel is revealed to be some obscure character with no previously disclosed motive. The film works fine on this level.

Elvis – the 1968 Comeback Special. This is classic Elvis at the top of his form before he became a caricature of himself. In the 70s, the first Elvis impersonator was Elvis, but this 1968 TV special is the real thing. The show features a mix of performances including elaborately choreographed stage numbers that presage his later Las Vegas shows. The bulk of the special, however, and by far the best part of it, is straight-up un-enhanced Elvis, playing, singing, and chatting casually and with humor to a small studio audience.

Love Stinks (1999). Uniformly bad reviews of this movie by professional critics contrast sharply with favorable reviews by ordinary movie-goers, who like it by a margin of 64 to 19 on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m with the movie-goers on this one. The film is rude, abrasive, un-PC, and very funny. Love does indeed stink for this couple whose relationship is (as the trailer says) worse than yours. If Nietzsche is right that cruelty is the meat of humor, Love Stinks provides plenty of protein.

SpiderBabe (2003): OK, this movie is sophomoric rubbish aimed at 14-year-old boys who cannot watch it legally, but there are times to suspend taste and just enjoy a guilty pleasure. Besides, Misty Mundae deserves some credit for having run around Times Square amid perplexed pedestrians in her SpiderBabe costume (black underwear and a mask) without looking embarrassed. The script, parodying Spider-Man with the roles gender-reversed, is genuinely funny in parts. If you feel like switching off your brain for an evening and letting your inner adolescent out for a stretch, this is the right movie. Otherwise, steer clear. Way clear. Incidentally, the R-rated version in the two disc set is by far the superior one. The unrated version cuts scenes and dialogue important to the plot in order to make time for lengthy and dull soft-core sex.

Parisian Love (1925). Like so many silent dramas of the 1920s, this is a weird mix of startling sophistication and breathtaking innocence. The plot, though easy to follow, is complex. Marie (Clara Bow) is an “Apache” (street criminal) in love with fellow-crook Armand. Armand and another gang-member enter the house of a wealthy scientist named Pierre while Marie stays outside as lookout. Things go wrong when Pierre confronts the robbers. Armand prevents his fellow Apache from killing Pierre, but is himself wounded. The second burglar is killed by police, but Marie gets away. Recognizing Armand as a former student and grateful for his protection during the robbery, Pierre shields him from the police and nurses him back to health; during the convalescence, Pierre lavishes money, gifts, and attention on Armand in a way that is downright erotic – though he also sets him up with a nice girl. Armand accepts the help but tries to find Marie. Marie, however, has left the apartment of her drunken family after an argument about Armand, so they spitefully tell Armand she is dead. Armand is sad but takes up with the nice girl and goes traveling. When Marie finds out, she is furious with Pierre for alienating Armand’s affections from her. To get back at Pierre, she pretends to be an upper-class young lady so she can meet Pierre, seduce him, and then marry him so she can take his money. She succeeds at marrying him. Then Armand comes home from his travels and drama ensues. In the end, the ever-generous Pierre recognizes true love, and gives up his bride to Armand whom he seems to like better than Marie anyway.

The Girl Next Door (2007). Jack Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door was made into this deeply disturbing movie that Stephen King called a dark-side Stand by Me. In the 1950s, Ruth is a single parent to her sons. She takes in two distantly related girls when their parents are killed in a car accident. Ruth has deep psychosexual problems and is angered by the attractiveness of the older girl. Ruth orchestrates ever more vicious abuse of her at the hands of her sons and other neighborhood boys and girls. A neighbor boy, the protagonist, is basically a good kid but is drawn by the dark fascination of it all. By the time the abuse gets so extreme that he wants to intervene, his own guilt is an issue because of his tacit participation up until then. The book and movie were inspired by the very real Sylvia Likens case. Thumbs up, but not for the squeamish.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Stanley Kubrick’s last movie explores marriage and the nature of betrayal. When does cheating begin? Is the thought enough? Tom Cruise is disturbed when Nicole Kidman tells him that once she would have run off with a naval officer had he only asked. Is that betrayal even though he didn’t ask and she didn’t go? Tom later picks up a hooker and only an emergency phone call (he portrays a doctor) prevents him from having sex with her. Is his intent betrayal even though he didn’t go through with it? Tom’s night gets stranger as he crashes a costume party at a private sex club. He is expelled before participating, but afterward Nicole discovers his costume. They get past their insecurities, at least for the moment, and their marriage remains intact. The same cannot be said for Tom and Nicole in real life. They broke up immediately after making this movie. Neither has been forthcoming over whether the film had anything to do it. A subtext of the movie is class: though Tom's character is well-to-do, he is not a member of the 1% elite (ruling?) class; the true elite play by their own rules, and Tom gets just a glimpse of their world without fully understanding it.

Baby Face (1933), from the Forbidden Hollywood pack, is the quintessential pre-code film. (The Hays decency code, a form of industry self-censorship, began to be enforced by the studios in 1934.) Armed only with Nietzsche’s The Will to Power as a textbook, flat-broke Barbara Stanwyck hops a freight train to NYC, picks out a building housing a major bank, and methodically sleeps her way to the top, finally seducing and marrying the heir to the bank. My only complaint with the film (**spoiler**) is that Barbara breaks character in the final scene. The scriptwriters (or, more likely, the producers) balked at having her take the money and run, but that would have been the more artistically satisfying and internally consistent ending.

Today we have endless choices in products and entertainment. When I was a kid, the number of TV channels numbered in the single digits. If we wanted to watch a movie, there probably was only one airing at any given time. Whatever it was, we watched it. Now we are accustomed to 200 or more channels. Choice is a good thing, but we don’t always handle a surfeit of it well. We channel-surf because we feel something in all those other channels must be better than what is on the current channel. Yet, there is something to be said for hiding the remote and just making the best of what is in front of us. (I do not suggest that we limit channels, but only that we sometimes limit ourselves.)  There was much enjoyment to be had and a few things to be learned when forcing myself to watch a movie I probably would have surfed past had it been on Showtime or HBO. I’m sure the lesson isn’t limited to movies.

Baby Face (1933) Original Trailer


Friday, June 15, 2012

The Conqueror Germ

I had a cold. The doctor came
and five assistants, too.
They laid ten icy hands on me,
and now I’ve got the flu.
Martial (90 AD)
Lionel Casson translation

While pursuing a Bachelor’s in history, I grew accustomed to considering the world in the ways usually presented by historians: conflicts of peoples, ideas, and individuals against a backdrop of cultural evolution. There is much to be said for looking at things this way, but a few years after graduation I plucked Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill off a Barnes & Noble shelf. McNeill reminded me to try to think outside the box now and then as well.  

McNeill argues that the most overlooked players in historical events are no larger than a bacillus and sometimes as small as a virus. It should be remembered that, prior to the 19th century when the medical profession first began to save more people than it killed, plague meant an absolute die-back of the population, sometimes on a vast scale. The Black Death was so enormous in its effects in Europe that all general histories cover it, yet this was just one major disease event out of countless ones; the effects of the others often were just as profound. As an example, how would the world be different if Athens had won the Peloponnesian War, as it likely would have but for the plague (still unidentified despite Thucydides’ detailed description) that afflicted the city and army? McNeil, while acknowledging the barbarian pressures on Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries, points out that pressures had been just as severe in the past; plagues which decimated Roman cities (and therefore the tax base to support the army) made the difference this time, and led to the fall of the Empire in the west. In Asia, the interaction of China with its northern barbarians was affected by plagues in way parallel to Rome. In the century after the Spanish Conquest, the native population of Mexico collapsed from some 15,000,000 to 1,000,000, not because of Spanish depredations (which were nasty enough, but no worse than those of the preceding Aztecs), but because the locals had no resistance to European diseases; even mild childhood diseases such as chicken pox were lethal to these inexperienced populations. Napoleon was defeated not by the Russian winter but by typhus, which killed tens of thousands of his soldiers per month – 10,000 in the single week before he entered Moscow.

Prior to modern medicine, human populations adapted to diseases in precisely the same way as other animal populations do. Rabbits in Australia provide a good recent example of animal infection and recovery. Myxomatosis is a fairly mild disease among all species of cottontail rabbits in the Americas, but it is deadly to the common European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). In 1950 myxomatosis was deliberately introduced to wild European rabbits in Australia in an attempt to control this invasive species. The rabbit population collapsed from 600,000,000 to 100,000,000. The survivors, of course, were those with better resistance to this particular disease. Today in Australia, a much more disease-resistant rabbit population is back up to around 250,000,000.

McNeill was not the first or last to write on the subject, but his book is still a good general introduction.

According to an article in Science Daily, disease may be a hugely underestimated factor in prehistory as well. Studies of genetics and mutation rates allow scientists to estimate the age of some genes and also to estimate the size of primordial populations. It appears that about 100,000 years ago the anatomically modern human population, still restricted to Africa, was reduced to 10,000, most likely due to disease. Most diseases deadliest to humans, it should be noted, emerge from the Old World tropics where pathogens have coevolved with primates for millions of years. Those human survivors had (as we still have) two inactive genes that are active in other primates; the inactivity confers resistance to a wide range of infections that exploit those genes in our relatives. This amplified the immune-response advantage modern humans already had when they later encountered less disease-experienced Neanderthal, Denisovan, and (possibly) Homo erectus populations in Europe and Asia. The newcomer diseases would have been devastating to the locals.

Anthropologists long have argued over whether the extinction of all hominins besides modern humans was a matter of love or war, though there surely was a little of both. For the most part, did the others assimilate with modern humans or were they exterminated? Perhaps neither. Maybe they just got sick. If so, the little bugs that nearly killed off our species then gave us the world. Of course, the possibility cannot be ruled out that new ones may one day take it back.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Under the Boardwalk

Last night, Morristown’s Corporal Punishers women’s roller derby team in a home bout took on the Boardwalk Brawlers hailing from the South and Central Jersey Shore.

The Brawlers got off to a strong start with #17 Out-Break Meggo immediately breaking out and scoring 14 points in very first jam, while Brawlers blockers effectively held back the Punishers jammer. The third jam got off to a rough start as the opposing blockers tangled. Brawler #1337 FR3AK N’Rabbit, despite a hard take-down by Bruta Lee, pushed through as lead jammer. The Punishers pushed back with Maggy Kyllanfall #187 showing her characteristic talent for exploiting holes in the opposing defense, Heinz Catchup #57 showing her usual speed, and ASSault Shaker #AK 47 making the most of a power jam. It wasn’t enough to keep the Brawlers from expanding their lead and ending the first half with a commanding lead of 110-34.

The Brawlers showed off very good jammers, notably Lady Demeter, FR3AK N’Rabbit (not slowed by the rabbit ears on her helmet or her bunny tail), and Out-Break Meggo. Their blockers coordinated well, often forming a wall that was well-nigh impossible to break. Yet, this was not what gave them such a big advantage. After all, the Punishers have competent offense and defense, too. Rather, they were able to disrupt the Punishers time and time again by a perfectly legal but somewhat unorthodox tactic called Goating. The tactic exploits a derby rule that says “blockers may not block a jammer outside the zone of engagement.” The “zone of engagement” is no more than 20 feet behind the pack and no more than 20 feet ahead. The “pack” is a majority of the blockers. The Brawlers blockers would isolate and obstruct one Punishers blocker and then slow down, and those five thereby became the pack; the other Punishers suddenly would find themselves 20 feet in front of the pack and so were required by the rules to let the Brawler jammer sail past them and score points. The Punishers had been prepared better for shoulder-to-shoulder action than for this, and repeatedly gave up points on account of it. The Brawlers also used the Slow Start method to advantage (this uses up time when a key player is in the penalty box for a one-minute penalty), though this tactic is more common, and it is one the Punishers frequently use, too.

In the first jam of the Second Half the Punishers got off to a strong start with Heinz Catchup in a power jam. Blocking became more aggressive on both sides. Maggy Kyllanfall repeatedly racked up points, despite at one point taking a hard hit that sent her off track and into a wall. The Punishers were able to close the gap, at least in percentage terms, but the Brawlers maintained their lead. The clever tactics continued to be effective. Voldeloxx gamely skated as jammer for the Punishers the final jam as the clock ran out. The Brawlers prevailed 203-119. Skarlet Bekillyas (Brawlers) and Maggy Kyllanfall (Punishers) were MVPs.

As always, the bout was enjoyable to watch. I have a pretty good guess about what tactic the Punishers will be training to counter in their next practice session.

Link to Pics: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.4189757905998.172461.1346119564&type=1 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Visit to a Small Pantry

My DVD dust-off project nears a wrap-up. (See three earlier posts starting with Of Dust and Disks for more on this.) Oh, there are more DVDs on the shelves in my small DVD pantry, to be sure, but they are titles which I in fact likely will view from time to time without prompting (e.g. The Thin Man Series, Topper, Casablanca, et al.), so I excluded them from the re-watch project; they’ll have the dust shaken off soon enough anyway.

Two of the DVD re-views were stand-alone flicks:

Drowning Mona (2000) – This pleasantly dark comedy is set in an upstate New York town in which everyone drives a Yugo and no one belongs to Mensa. Mona, played by Bette Midler, is the most hateful, hated, and obnoxious woman in town; she has given half the local population motives to kill her. When Mona drives a car into a lake and drowns, whoever isn’t happy to hear about it doesn’t care. The police chief, Danny DeVito, discovers the car was sabotaged, but even he doesn’t want to arrest the most likely suspect.

Skyscraper Souls (1932) – Gordon Gekko, the “greed is good” fellow in the movie Wall Street (1987), was a rank amateur compared to his 1932 predecessor David Dwight. On the verge of losing control of a 100-story New York skyscraper, Dwight suckers his wealthy friends into a massive stock investment and then shorts the market, allowing him to pay off his $30,000,000 debt while destroying his friends – and also destroying average investors who were caught up in the enthusiasm of the stock bubble. Meanwhile, he cheats not only on his wife but on his mistress. Ordinary workers in the building have troubles of their own. (By the way, multiply all dollar values in this movie by 20 for a rough equivalent of today’s prices.) Perhaps it’s best not to examine the reason that this pre-code film is best remembered today not for its intriguing storyline, but simply because young Maureen O’Hara’s character says, “We’re being awfully shitty.”

The multipack question could be delayed no further: How best to handle the hundreds of films (mostly public domain and cheap) and TV shows contained in the multipacks on my shelf? They add up to well over 1000 hours, which is far more time than I want to spend in front of a TV set. The solution: just watch one movie or episode from each pack. Hey, at least this removes the dust.

I, Claudius (1976) – This brilliant BBC miniseries is worth seeing from start to finish at least once. Robert Graves was prompted to write the novels on which the series is based because he sensed something was wrong with the hostile ancient accounts of Claudius – especially those by Tacitus and Suetonius. Though dismissed as a fool by these two and by other contemporaries, Claudius had a very successful reign; furthermore, he was a bookworm who wrote multivolume histories and an analysis of the Etruscan language. Claudius had physical tics and a speech impediment, so he made a poor personal impression, but Graves concluded he was anything but a fool – an intellectual absent-minded professor type, perhaps, but not a fool. His wife gave him trouble, it is true, but many non-fools choose their spouses badly. I chose to watch episode 11 (Fool’s Luck) in which, after the assassination of the dreadful Caligula, the Praetorian Guard proclaims a reluctant Claudius emperor. Claudius at that point is the last surviving member of the royal family, and, without an emperor, the well-paid Guards are out of a job.

The Lost World (1999) – I watched the first episode of this Australian-made TV series based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel. It is pure escapism. It is successful as escapism, though, with amusing characters. Jennifer O’Dell is the obligatory blonde jungle girl in the leather bikini. Would Sir Arthur have minded had he lived long enough to see this? You know, maybe not.

Scifi Invasion 50 Movie Pack – I more or less randomly picked Galaxina, starring Dorothy Stratten as the robot Galaxina who wants to be human. Dorothy, the Playboy model more famous for her 1980 murder than for her photo shoot, couldn’t save this movie. Neither could the spoof on Alien. And why do physically perfect ageless robots keep trying to become human in scifi movies? Why don’t they see what a bad idea that is? Skip this movie.

Scifi Classics 50 Movie Pack – In this pack Bride of the Gorilla (1951) is yet another stinker, but a slightly more interesting stinker than Galaxina. Raymond Burr murders his boss to steal his plantation and his wife, played by Barbara Payton. (The statuesque Payton is better known for a violent love life and for self-destructing through drug abuse than for her movies.) An old witch woman curses Burr for the murder. He starts to see himself as a gorilla and gets all animalistic.

Mystery Classic 50 Movie Pack – This time the pick was good. He Walked by Night (1948) is a solid crime drama about a brilliant psychopathic criminal played by Richard Basehart. The police crime lab scientist is played by Jack Webb. You can see how he could have been inspired by this film to create Dragnet.

Chilling Classics 50 Movie Pack: In this pack A Bucket of Blood (1959) is a fun wry commentary on the artsy Beat scene of the 50s. A previously unsuccessful artist finds success when he starts making statues that are really human bodies covered with plaster.

The Best of Abbott and Costello – The boys are at the top of their game in Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1942). Bud and Lou are funny, the sub-story is charming, and the music, including a young Ella Fitzgerald, is great.

The Addams Family (1964) –This marvelously subversive TV show based on Charles Addams’ cartoons stood ordinary conventions of the day on their heads, as in the episode I viewed in which Morticia finds a baseball glove in her son’s closet and holds it up at arm’s length by two fingers, as appalled as another mother might be by drug paraphernalia. These characters are not merely oddballs, they are seriously dangerous. They serve their guests henbane tea. They casually contemplate murder and suicide. Their children literally play with dynamite. Yet they are immensely appealing.

Wonder Woman Season One (1975)Say “warrior princess” and you probably think Xena, but she was not the first of that description on the small screen. (I like Xena, by the way.) The two-hour pilot for the 70s Wonder Woman TV show is surprisingly elaborate. Lynda Carter was a wonderful pick for the main part, and the 1940s setting was very much the way to go. It is an altogether entertaining TV-movie. Watch the fx, which are old school. There is no CGI. When bullets supposedly are deflected by Wonder Woman’s bracelets, for example, those flashes are small explosive charges triggered by a button in her palm, which is why her fists are closed.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993) – This high concept high budget (for a TV show) well-written scifi Western starring Bruce Campbell deserved a bigger audience than it got. The testy friendship of Brisco and Lord Bowler (Julius Carry) and the dangerous romance between Brisco and Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford) made for a good show on many levels. I watched episode 1, but I might just watch episode 2 tonight.

Roswell (1999) – The pilot episode. This scifi teen soap opera had a mix of high quality actors, writers, and directors. It is better than a viewer has any right to expect. I wrote about it at greater length last year in the blog Guilty Pleasures:  http://richardbellush.blogspot.com/2011/02/guilty-pleasures.html

Third Rock from the Sun – The Nightmare on Dick Street double episode (1997). Third Rock is yet another “aliens on earth try to understand humans” show. This idea has been worked for laughs at least since Gore Vidal’s teleplay Visit to a Small Planet in 1955 (later turned into an over-the-top Jerry Lewis movie). Third Rock may be the best effort so far. Episode plot: the aliens never dreamed before and don’t know what to make of their nocturnal hallucinations.

So, has this extended re-visit to the DVDs been worth it?  Yes, I think so. There was so much creativity on display, even in the bad movies, that I can’t help but be motivated to get back to my own writing. I know I can do better than the worst of those scripts, and the best offer something to which to aspire.

Sally’s Fellini-esque Dream Sequence in Third Rock from the Sun

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Leopards in the Grass

Has this ever happened to you? You find yourself talking with someone who espouses interesting ideas on politics or philosophy. You find yourself broadly agreeing with him. Then he says something about stealth drones tracking all our movements through computer chips planted in our butts by CIA proctologists, or about the current economic malaise being an Illuminati plot, or about (my personal favorite) the inter-dimensional alien reptiles who rule the world through inbred elite human families. (See http://www.amazon.com/David-Icke-Guide-Global-Conspiracy/dp/0953881083/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1338575322&sr=8-4 for more on that last one.)

It is particularly disconcerting when the people who say such things are obviously intelligent and well-informed. Michael Shermer, contributor to Scientific American, argues that intelligent people can convolute, reinterpret, and interconnect data in creative ways no dimwit ever could, so that intelligence is an asset, not a hindrance, to a conspiracy theorist. It is important to remember that the world is full of very real conspiracies, but, as Shermer says about hypothetical plots that require large numbers of people to keep silent, “The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes.

People are hardwired to see patterns and meaning in the world. Evolution saw to that. Any of our primate ancestors who concluded a rustle in tall grasses meant that leopards were lurking in there, for example, most often were wrong; still, they were more likely to survive than the primates who correctly surmised that rustling grasses and leopards only sometimes were associated. In the wild, being credulous about links is less likely to get you killed than being skeptical. Modern humans remain pretty good at discerning causes, patterns, meanings, and hidden links where they exist, but we are just as talented at seeing them where they don’t. We are motivated to see them, too; we feel uncomfortable with purposeless chaos. We are likely to prefer an outlandish conspiracy theory to a shrug and the old tee-shirt slogan, “Shit happens.” Nietzsche commented (not about the tee-shirt but about purpose), “People will accept any how so long as they have a why.”

We don’t live in the wild anymore. In modern civilization it pays to temper our natural inclination to infer hidden meanings, causes, and patterns with skepticism. Nevertheless, doing so is often a struggle, and even the most successfully skeptical of us might like to relax by indulging our paranoia, at least in our fiction.

Last week my copy of the newly released Nightworld arrived. I finished it in a day. It is the 15th and last in the remarkable Repairman Jack series of novels by F. Paul Wilson. There are other novels by Wilson that are not technically part of the series, but which have some of the same characters and presuppositions. There are also juvenile/young-adult prequels about the early adventures of the young Jack.

The Repairman Jack tales are reminiscent of HP Lovecraft’s stories in that they involve trans-dimensional entities. The entities are not supernatural in a strict sense, though in their manifestations they often seem to be. Their conflict, in something like a cosmic game of chess, has profound implications for life on this world, even though earth draws just a miniscule part of their attention; for thousands of years a tiny minority of humans have been aware of them, and, through all those generations, have conspired through secret societies to tap into their power for their own purposes. Given his druthers, “Repairman Jack” would have nothing to do with any of this stuff. Jack is an urban mercenary who endeavors to fix all-too-earthly problems for clients who, for one reason or another, do not wish to employ the police. Though no stickler for the law and not shy about violence where he deems it appropriate, Jack has a firm set of values; he is not dangerous to people who aren’t themselves dangerous. Very much against his will, Jack finds himself caught up in the proxy combat of those otherworldly entities through his clients’ cases. (There is a reason cases involving these matters keep coming Jack’s way, but the reason doesn’t reveal itself fully for the first few novels.) Jack gets a chance to see "behind the veil" to the secret history of the world and to the deeper reality of the universe.

The world of Repairman Jack is fiction, but it is appealing fiction. The series even might alter your perception of conspiracy theories, though I couldn’t say in what direction. I recommend picking up The Tomb, the first book of the Repairman Jack series. You then are likely to buy the other 14. You might even seek out, as I did, the juvenile Jack prequels, target demographic be damned.

Book Trailer for Young Adult Jack prequel to the Adult Repairman Jack Series