Monday, December 29, 2014

The Art of Doing Nothing

Last night, as is common for me, I sat on the couch in an unlit living room while letting my mind wander to this and that. A few friends are currently staying at the house, and one happened to notice me in there. “Richard, it’s dark in there! Are you feeling okay? Is something wrong?” she asked, genuinely concerned. I explained, apparently unconvincingly, that everything was fine and this was just something I do. I didn’t add that I had assumed it was something everybody did. Once upon a time it was – by nearly everybody anyway. Nowadays, though, we are so focused on our laptops, iPhones, Playstations, satellite TVs, tablets, and (if we absolutely must divert our eyes from a screen) earphones that sitting alone in the dark without any electronics probably is a bit weird.
Back in 1928 economist John Maynard Keynes wrote Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, prognosticating a world in 2028 with an economy grown sevenfold; after the 1929 Crash, he said that the Depression, bad as it was, was temporary and that his prediction stood. On the production numbers, he has been proven right. 2014 US per capita GDP is up sixfold in real terms over 1928 and may well reach sevenfold by 2028.  Keynes’ goofed, though, in another prediction. He assumed that workers, as incomes rose, would continue to trade some money for leisure time as they had done for the previous century; he figured that by 2028 the workweek would be only 15 hours. They didn’t and it won’t be. The growth in leisure stalled 40 years ago and shows little sign of expanding again anytime soon. The reasons for this are manifold, but best left for a separate essay.
Nonetheless, leisure time is much longer than in 1928 (if not 1978), and some of Keynes’ worries are still interesting. The idle rich, he noted, “failed disastrously” at occupying themselves satisfyingly, and he was concerned that the rest of the population would be no better at it. Only those who could practice and enjoy “the art of life itself” could avoid a loss of purpose akin to a nervous breakdown. In practice most of us have avoided both the artistry of life and nervous breakdowns. We have consumed our time instead with mindless busyness in the real world and virtual activities in the cyber world – frequently at the same time.  If all else fails, we can work longer; our bosses won’t mind, even when we’re self-employed.
If this is enough to keep one happy, so be it. (The evidence is that it isn’t, by and large, but that too is best left to a separate essay.) The real world with real people (“meatspace”) has much to recommend it, but let me recommend one weird old-fashioned form of solitary virtual activity, too. Turn off the smart phone, sit in the dark and let the mind wander. It’s a good way to become conscious of one’s own thoughts.  They’re there. Really.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

General Admission

Americans have a reputation for lacking the stomach for long wars. Whether it is deserved (without meaning to sound Clintonesque) depends on how long “long” is. The Revolution (1775-1783) was 8 years. The Civil War was an especially sanguineous 4. So was the US participation in World War 2. While we did tire of it eventually, we stuck out Vietnam for 10, counting from JFK’s infusion of 16,000 troops in 1963. Afghanistan is 13. Those seem pretty long to me – but perhaps I’m proving the point.  It’s not just the length but the nature of the combat that matters. We’re pretty good at taking on conventional forces, but insurgencies that drag on and on wear on our patience. We even lost patience in our own country, ending Reconstruction in 1877 before its objectives were secure.

The difference between conventional and counterinsurgency warfare looms large in Lt. General Daniel P. Bolger’s book, provocatively titled Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The word “lost” also is open to interpretation. Elected governments continue to hold sway in Baghdad and Kabul after all. However, ongoing civil war was never the plan; to the extent this is the unwanted reality, “lost” is a fair enough description. Bolger was a general officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The very first sentence of the book is, “I am a United States Army general and I lost the Global War on Terrorism.” He doesn’t mean all by himself, but he does mean himself personally along with others. He was never in overall command in either conflict: “You’d find me lower down on the food chain, but high enough.” High enough for his own decisions to have wide repercussions.

Bolger notes that US forces were (and fundamentally still are) configured for “short decisive conventional conflicts…Employed thusly, American airpower and SOF [Special Operations Forces] in 2001, and airpower and armor in Iraq in 2003, worked as advertised.” But, he writes, “Counterinsurgency works if the intervening country demonstrates the will to remain forever. Once it becomes clear that the external forces won’t stay past a certain date, the guerrillas simply back off and wait it out.” Yet the US and its allies didn’t pocket the victories in Kabul and Baghdad and then leave, as they could have done. They stayed. In Afghanistan this posed special geographical challenges in a landlocked mountainous country accessible only at the sufferance of frenemies. In Iraq the demographics weighed heavier.

Where was Bolger’s insight in these matters back in 2001 and 2003 when communicating it to the civilian leadership and public might have done some good? Lacking, to hear him tell it. “We faltered due to a distinct lack of humility.” He blames himself and other Pentagon brass for overconfidence after the early successes, and for failing to recognize and warn that “nation-building” was a task outside the expertise and resources of the military.

Yet this assignment of blame lets the civilians too much off the hook: the Bush Administration to be sure, but also key Democrats. Feinstein, Dodd, Biden, Kerry, Reid, Edwards, Schumer, and Clinton, among others, all voted for the Iraq War which passed Congress overwhelmingly in a bipartisan vote. The public, too, was solidly behind it. Opponents were such fringy odd couples as Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. [Also, as it happens, me. I claim no special foresight: it was just consistent with a general instinct to oppose interventions of choice, whether in Panama, 1991 Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo, Libya, or elsewhere. Sometimes I’m probably wrong. Maybe time will prove me wrong in this instance, too.]

Besides, there were warnings from top brass from Colin Powell on down. (Powell was Secretary of State in 2003, but had been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the first Iraq War.) I remember full well US Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki testifying to the Senate early in 2003 that controlling Iraq after the success of an initial invasion would take “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers.” No force of that size was available from the US and its partners for any lengthy presence. The scaled down post Cold War military simply didn’t have the troops and equipment to do this and still meet its other commitments. It was possible to rebuild the troop strength sufficient to do it, but that was an unsavory political choice that no one in Congress or the White House wanted to make. Instead, warnings were dismissed and replaced by wishful thinking that demanded too much of too few. In Bolger’s words, “The key thing was to blow Saddam off the map. The rest might well take care of itself.” In 2004 US troops totaled 138,000 and Coalition forces from 37 countries contributed 23,000, but nothing took care of itself. Bolger adds that wishful thinking didn’t end with the last Administration, but has been a continuing feature of the current one too.

Bolger’s snappily written book is a worthwhile history of the two campaigns. It doesn’t lose sight of individuals, whether in command or carrying rifles on foot. He reports what they did right and isn’t squeamish about reporting who did what wrong.  As the evaluation of an insider with views at variance with many other high ranking officers, Bolger’s book is both a complement and a counterbalance to accounts such as Tommy Franks’ American Soldier.

General Shinseki in 2003 Senate hearing

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fernwood Revisited

Contemporary society arrived in the 1970s. Don’t let the big hair, bell bottoms, and disco music fool you into thinking otherwise. While much of the modern consumer tech hadn’t yet spread out of company labs and nerds’ garages, the social revolution of the 1960s had basically succeeded by 1970, and this by far was more significant than the state of consumer electronics. If anything, the 2010s have more in common with the 1970s than with the 1980s & 90s when a socially conservative reaction to the 70s flexed some muscle. You can see it even in 70s TV sitcoms, particularly those of Norman Lear: All in the Family, Good Times, Maude, et al. That is not to say there are no differences between then and now. There are plenty. The revolution was still fresh four decades ago, and many folks were dazed by it. This, too, shows up in film, music, and TV from the era.

One night in 1976 I was channel-surfing, which was a much smaller wave to ride than it is today. I beached upon a new Norman Lear program. Unusually, this one didn’t air on a network in prime time. It was syndicated and in the New York market it played at 11:30 PM on WNEW.  The show was Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. It sported a solid cast including Louise Lasser and Mary Kay Place. To call this show a spoof of soap operas is almost right – yet not quite right. The show didn't really aim for comedy though it often was funny. It had no laugh track. It stuck firmly to the soap opera conventions in its sets, camera shots, delivery, music, and 5 day per week schedule. But the scripts and dialogue were just…off. This confused station managers in some markets enough to air it daytime with the other soaps. Many viewers never really got it and I’m sure many wouldn’t today, but enough did to make the show a surprise hit.

Nowadays we are accustomed to broad comedies with over-the-top characters, bizarre plots, and often raunchy dialogue. Mary Hartman Mary Hartman is much more low-key than that, and never more so than when the plot goes in some weird direction. In the town of Fernwood, Ohio, Mary (Louise Lasser) discovers her grandfather is the Fernwood Flasher; her younger sister Cathy takes promiscuity to a new level; her daughter Heather is a witness in the slaying of five people (plus “two goats and eight chickens”); Mary herself becomes a hostage in a stand-off with police; meanwhile her aspiring country singer friend Loretta (Mary Kay Place) writes songs about the murders and the hostage ordeal. The actors play it completely deadpan. The characters are plainly confused about their places in a changed world. Mary’s husband Tom still wears his high school varsity jacket, since high school was the last time he knew his place and had high hopes. Mary is a housewife aware that the job description is increasingly out of step with the times. She speaks about the murders one moment and about the waxy yellow buildup on her kitchen floor the next. By not playing the situations for easy laughs, the show instills in viewers the creepy sensation that this is not just a soap opera world but our world. It isn’t all so rare to have an errant family member, a murder down the street, a local hostage situation, an identity crisis, or a waxy yellow build-up. We deal with such things with the same alternation of bewilderment and retreat into the mundane as Mary.

Last week, for the first time in decades, I watched a couple dozen episodes of the show which now is available on DVD. Before pressing “play,” I wasn’t sure if, after all these years, the soap would come across solely as a relic of its time or if it yet would be relevant to 2014. It is not just a relic. In oh-so-many ways, today is still 1976. I’m glad to have revisited Fernwood. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Recap: Corporal Punishers vs Roller Vixens

In the final bout of the season the Corporal Punishers of the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) faced the Red Bank Roller Vixens on the JDB’s home rink in Morristown NJ.

The last time I saw the Vixens skate was in November 2013. New faces have been added since then, but there were a few returning veterans including Infra Red and Pushy Galore. The team needed them. In the very first jam Punisher CaliforniKate blew through Red Bank defenses and put 15 points on the board. In the second jam Punisher ApocElyse lapped the pack twice. It was a harbinger of things to come. Infra Red put the first few points on the board for Red Bank. Additional points were gained by Lady Speedstick and Pink Wrecker, but the Corporal Punishers dominated the first half, ending with a half-time lead 156-46.

The Vixens redoubled their efforts in the second half with noticeable effect. Blocking became more aggressive with Purple Crush and C the Fury delivering solid hits. More than a few pile-ups were part of the action. Red Bank’s jammers were more successful, with points following a star pass maneuver putting the team over the 100 mark. Yet, it was still the Punishers’ game. Morristown has rebuilt a depth of experienced jammers after having lost key skaters in 2013 and it shows: Brass Muscles, LL Kill J, and Porcelain Brawl all proved adept at evading or pushing through Red Bank blocking. Vixen blockers are not lacking in energy or aggression, but the Punishers’ tighter defensive coordination gave them an advantage. The Punishers’ recent improvement shows that a single season can make a world of difference, and a 2015 rematch might see fortunes reversed. The Corporal Punishers took the win with a score of 264-116.   

Friday, December 12, 2014

And That’s the Truth

For no particular reason, here is a list of a dozen random facts that caught my attention this past week. Calling anything a fact will stir challenges just on principle in these cynical (yet, oddly, not “skeptical” in the proper sense) days, but I deem the sources, ranging from a chemistry text to The New York Times to be reliable enough to regard the items as the truth until proved otherwise.

1.       Neptunium, element 93 (wedged between uranium and plutonium), doesn’t have significant commercial applications, but you probably have some of the stuff in your hallway anyway. Smoke detectors commonly use small amounts of americium (element 95) isotope 241. Alpha particles from the decay of americium interact with smoke particles in a detectable way. Am241 decays into Np237. Am241 has a half-life of 432 years while Np237 has a half-life of 2,145,500 years. So, in several thousand years nearly all the americium will have been converted to neptunium. You’ll probably need to change the batteries in the smoke detector before then.
2.       Among the scams practiced by our nation’s enterprising criminals (Mark Twain’s remark on the criminal class notwithstanding, I don’t refer in this instance to Congress) is the one of filing a fake deed in a county courthouse, and then borrowing money against the property, usually as an equity loan. It’s the kind of borrowing that doesn’t get paid back. The real owner suddenly discovers a lien against his property. To show how disturbingly easy this can be, in 2008 the New York Daily News gave it a try. They successfully filed a deed in the New York City Hall recording the transfer of property from Empire State Land Associates to Nelots Property. If anyone at the city hall noticed that the property address was the Empire State Building, the datum apparently wasn’t considered worthy of comment. Nor was the fact that the witness on the deed was Fay Wray and the notary Willie Sutton. (Perhaps those names really mean nothing to those below a certain age.) Nelots was fictitious and the Daily News revealed the hoax without making an effort actually to defraud the owners, so no one did jail time, but they made their point.
3.       Blue whales’ tongues typically weigh 2700 kilograms. I do not know who weighed them.
4.       69% of cell phone owners experience “phantom vibration,” the sense that the phone is vibrating when it isn’t. While there might be physical explanations in some cases – perhaps there are instances of resonance or feedback or something – the prevailing opinion is that it is generally a psychological phenomenon.
5.       Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the first draft of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde inspired by cocaine. The second draft was inspired by his wife Fanny Osbourne. She read the first and made suggestions, so he burned it. He found it easier to rewrite it in line with her suggestions that way.
6.       On September 11, 2001, Ben Sliney had a tough day. He was the FAA National Operations Manager. He took charge in the emergency and ordered the immediate suspension of all civilian flights, a radical but much praised decision. It was Ben’s first day on the job.
7.       On June 26, 1944, was the only (so far) three way major league baseball game: Yankees vs Giants vs Dodgers. The teams rotated through the tops and bottoms of nine innings. Dodgers won: Dodgers 5, Yankees 1, Giants 0. It was a novelty game intended to sell war bonds to the stadium audience; attendees bought $6,500,000 worth.
8.       “D’oh,” Homer Simpson’s characteristic exclamation, is in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish.”
9.       It long has been known that tasters (even professionals) are remarkably poor at ranking cheap and expensive wines in blind tests, and that tasters’ opinions about the wines do not match what they say when they can read the labels. Expectations count for a lot, it seems. In 2009 researchers from the American Association of Wine Economists tested whether people were just as unreliable judging food such as pâté. They had eighteen subjects taste Spam, pork liver pâté, liverwurst, duck liver mousse, and Newman’s Own Dog Food. They were asked to pick out the dog food. Three of the eighteen got it right, no better than chance.
10.   The record for going without sleep according to Scientific American is 264 hours. It was set by a 17-year-old at a science fair in 1965. I think I’ll let him keep the record.
11.   A diamond five times the size of earth orbits the pulsar PSR J1719-1438. I’ve read why astronomers have reached this conclusion, but I’d still like to see it for myself. That might be difficult. If true, there’s no need fussing over the F. Scott Fitzgerald tale The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.
12.   The little metal casing that holds an eraser to a pencil is called a ferrule. Maybe you knew that. Until this week I didn’t.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Movies after Midnight

I probably drink too much caffeine. There are advantages, though. When midnight rolls around and eyes refuse to close, there are DVDs to spin. Mini-reviews of ten follow. They were viewed as five double-features: a lately acquired habit has been pairing a newly viewed film with an older one which the first brought to mind.

****     ****     ****     ****

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) – It has been 9 years since Sin City (2005). The sequel was a long time coming, but it doesn’t disappoint. Like the original, this surreal noir tribute film is based on the graphic novels of Frank Miller. Perhaps taking a page not only from the comics but from Kill Bill!, the director appears never to have uttered the words “too much” with regard to violence. This is seldom the right decision, but in this case it was. Several plots intertwine. Jessica Alba returns as Nancy, but jaded and damaged by her thirst for revenge. Senator Roark is as evil as ever. Joseph Gordon-Levitt learns that luck carries you only so far. Mickey Rourke still enjoys busting up scumbags, even when the fight isn’t really his. There are solid supporting roles for Juno Temple and Christopher Lloyd. Eva Green is impressively sociopathic as a dame to kill for. If you liked the first film, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Side note: while the location of (Ba)sin City is as unspecific  as that of Clark Kent’s Metropolis, the I-287 sign indicates it can’t be much more than an hour from my house.

Out of the Past (1947) – Whenever I try to hook someone on classic noir, Out of the Past is my go-to movie. It’s got it all: a hard-bitten detective who is a secret romantic underneath the cynical persona, an unsavory client as likely to pay off with bullets as with money, and femmes fatales wielding gats and gams.  Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) hires Jeff (Robert Mitchum) to find Kathie (Jane Greer), the gorgeous dame who shot him and stole his money. He just wants her back. He tells a puzzled Jeff that he’ll understand when he meets her. He understands all right when he meets her, and so do we. The betrayals come thick and fast. The final betrayal deserves a thumbs up. Superb.

****     ****     ****     ****

Hunger Games: The Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) – Who would see this movie without first seeing the previous two Hunger Games? I suppose some folks would, but if you’re among them, stop. Go back and see the other two first. Or, at the very least, see the first one.  If you do that you will know what to expect here, and the film delivers on expectations more than adequately. Katniss is now in District 13 where the rebels survive in their underground bases. She joins their fight against the Capital. However, we get the sense that the rebels and their president (Julianne Moore) might not be such an improvement over President Snow were they to gain power. Peeta certainly thinks so, but he has been brainwashed so his conclusions are suspect.  There is plenty of action and a plot that is satisfyingly more than a simplistic “good guys vs bad guys.” My one big complaint is right in the title: “Part 1.” The decision to split the adaptation of the final book of the trilogy into two parts was a business decision, not a directorial one, and it shows.

Sleeper (1973) – Awakened from cryogenic preservation into an authoritarian future, Miles (Woody Allen) in order to save his brain (“my second favorite organ”) flees to find the Resistance in this scifi comedy.  Along the way he falls for Luna (Diane Keaton). Luna doesn’t fail to notice the handsome Erno who heads the Resistance. Discovering that only the nose of the state’s dictator has survived an assassination attempt, Miles and Luna try to steal the Leader’s nose to prevent it from being cloned. This will leave the state Leaderless and give the Resistance the opportunity it needs. Nonetheless, Miles makes clear that he does it to please Luna, not because he believes in any political system or in political solutions: “In six months, we’ll be stealing Erno’s nose,” he says.

This early Woody Allen comedy holds up remarkably well, and is still funny on several levels.

****     ****     ****     ****

Venus in Fur (2013) – I’m not the biggest Roman Polanski fan, but this little film, which he wrote and directed, is a gem. Thomas is a playwright who has adapted for stage the 1870 Austrian novel Venus in Fur by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the fellow who lent his name to “masochism”). He can’t find the right actress to play Vanda, the dominatrix to whom Masoch’s hero Severin submits supposedly as an act of love. An unscheduled actress enters the theater, which is empty except for the two of them. She says her name just happens to be Vanda. She and Thomas read lines. She proves perfect in the part even though Thomas is convinced she doesn’t understand the material. Thomas sees the play at bottom as a love story while Vanda says it’s about a decent girl corrupted by a pervert. They read lines, argue, and exchange thoughts; it is not always clear where the dialogue of the play ends and their own discussions begin. Vanda is intrigued by his play but hates it, telling him (in reference to the title) that’s it’s a good thing there are no goddesses or “you would be fucked.” Vanda knows too much, however, and one begins to wonder if Thomas actually does have Venus on his hands. While that question isn’t answered in the film, and while nothing occurs that is indisputably supernatural, it is the most straightforward explanation for numerous very odd circumstances and for what happens to Thomas.

It can’t be a pure coincidence that Mathieu Amalric (cast as Thomas) looks very much like Polanski. He nails the part. Emmanuelle Seigner (Vanda) also hits the right notes. Recommended.

Gilda (1946) – One is hard pressed to find a more perversely sadomasochistic couple than Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946). Johnny Farrell (Ford) goes to work in Buenos Aires for a casino owner named Mundson only to discover that Mundson’s wife is Johnny’s old flame Gilda (Hayworth). Part of Johnny’s job is to be her bodyguard. They don’t tell Mundson about their history but that is the only point on which they agree. They relentlessly taunt each other for past wrongs. The wrongs are unspecified though there is a hint of a prior infidelity by Gilda and more than a hint of Johnny’s excessively stubborn refusal to forgive. Yet, they continue the mutual clawing precisely because the spark between them is still there. The hurt they have done each other (and continue to do to each other) is so much a part of their identities that they are almost fond of it. Mundson, meanwhile, is involved in a criminal scheme which will test where the loyalties of Johnny and Gilda lie.

This is a fine film about two flawed people with a passionate but cruel relationship. Rita never looked or sounded better.

****     ****     ****     ****

What If (2014) – Daniel Radcliffe has had a varied post-Potter career. Here he is paired with the charming actress Zoe Kazan.  Wallace and Chantry (Daniel and Zoe) are “just friends” despite an obvious chemistry between them. The reason is that Chantry has a committed relationship with a good guy, and doesn’t want to mess it up. Wallace, who knows he wants more, is caught between the options of being a jerk (coming on to her) or being pathetic (hiding his feelings from her). When Chantry’s boyfriend leaves Toronto for an extended stay in Dublin because of a career opportunity, however, the strain on the relationship with him grows. So does the strain on the one with Wallace.

This is a pleasant love story of the sort not seen much in movies made on this side of the border in the past decade or two. It isn’t particularly original (When Harry Met Sally is the obvious comparison), but it works thanks almost entirely to Radcliffe and Kazan. The absence of fashionable cynicism is refreshing.

The April Fools (1969) – Howard (Jack Lemmon) is unhappily married to a woman who cares little for him, but at least he gets a promotion. At a party his playboy boss Ted (Peter Lawford) tells him to play around. Ted gives him tips for picking up women and tells him to try them on someone at the party. Howard does just that with Catherine (Catherine Deneuve). Wow, the tips do work. He and Catherine leave the party together. Uh-oh, Catherine is Ted’s wife. She is unhappily married, though, and announces her plan to leave Ted and fly to Paris. Howard wants to join her. Will they follow their hearts or will they be overwhelmed by practical considerations of money, responsibilities, and commitments?

This film came out when old moral standards were breaking down but while a 60s vibe of “all you need is love” was in the air. It was also a time when happy endings in romantic comedies no longer were de rigueur. This isn’t a particularly profound or insightful film, but it has some charms, asks a still relevant question, and captures a moment in time.

****     ****     ****     ****

Byzantium (2012) – Tired of vampires yet? Most of us are. Nonetheless, this flick is stylish enough to be worth a look. Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse [pronounced SER-sha] Ronan) are a mother-daughter pair of vampires living at the Byzantium, a sea-side hotel that has seen better days. We learn their two hundred year-old backstory in flashbacks when Eleanor writes it in a supposed work of fiction that she lets her boyfriend read. This is indiscreet, but she still is 16 after a fashion – and always will be. Clara and Emma already are on the run from the Brotherhood, a chauvinistic trade association with anticompetitive practices, for violating the code of vampirism. So, indiscretion can be lethal. Sure enough the story gets around, and the Brotherhood shows up to kill them. Who else is tasked by the Brotherhood to behead Clara but Darvell, the fellow ultimately responsible for Clara having become a vampire 200 years earlier? He isn’t keen on the idea though. He still feels bad about his behavior a couple centuries back. Our sympathies are so much with Clara and Eleanor that we tend to forget they, too, are predators.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) – In this official Universal Studios sequel to Dracula (1931), Contessa Marya Zeleska is Dracula's daughter, and, yes, she is a vampire. The story begins just after the death of Dracula at the hands of von Helsing. The Contessa steals Dracula’s body and burns it in the hope of breaking the curse of vampirism, but this doesn’t help. She is still thirsty. Marya then seeks out the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Garth, hoping to break her sanguineous habit through will and therapy. This doesn’t help either. Her thirst continues. Her assaults, like Dracula’s, are more than a little erotic, particularly against the painter’s model Lili. In a case of classic transference, however, she develops a thing for Garth. She eschews therapy but kidnaps the woman Garth loves in order to lure him to Transylvania. She plans to bite Garth so they can live together forever as vampires. He, of course, has other plans.

This movie had pretty good reviews back in the day – at least in comparison to other horror films. If you like the 1930s-40s Universal horror movies (I do), this one shouldn’t be overlooked. Viewers new to the genre, however, should be forewarned that, unlike their modern counterparts, these flicks are about atmospherics, not about action and gore.

****     ****     ****     ****

If I were to recommend only one, the winner this week would be Venus in Fur. Runner-up: Gilda.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Jam To-morrow and Jam Yesterday

Library shelves, both physical and digital, are well-stocked with works of futurists. I don’t mean science fiction, though more than a few futurists are also science fiction writers. I mean non-fiction efforts to forecast the future in light of evolving technologies; it’s a genre that cropped up in modern form about a century ago. Some authors are dystopian and lament the world we already have lost. Some are utopian to a degree that would shame Pollyanna. Most, though, are a curious mix of both. Examples: Alvin Toffler discusses the social upheavals associated with accelerating technological change in Future Shock (1970); Erik Drexler extols the promise of nanotechnology in Engines of Creation (1986); Vernor Vinge while in non-scifi mode wrote the influential The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era in 1993 about the era when artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence; Michio Kaku has written more than a dozen such books so far, including Physics of the Future: How Science will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 (2011). Possibly the most influential was the early entry The World, the Flesh & the Devil (1929) by British molecular biologist J.D. Bernal. I finally got around to opening it last week.

Bernal chose this title precisely because of the phrase’s baggage, though he himself was atheist and Marxist. The subtitle helps illuminate his subject: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul. By “world” he means the physical environment including the cosmos beyond earth which we engineer to suit ourselves. Bernal discusses methods of propulsion to escape earth’s gravity and to move beyond it; he predicts the eventual construction of permanent habitats in space and describes them in some detail. In the chapter on “flesh” he addresses biology and anticipates genetic engineering: “It is quite conceivable that the mechanism of evolution, as we know it up to the present, may well be superseded at this point.”  He also discusses mechanical biological hybrids (cyborgs) and group minds intermediated by machines (think the Borg of Star Trek). By “devil” he means the dark side of human nature and our animal heritage which so readily turn technologies deadly. “The devil,” he writes, “is the most difficult of all to deal with: he is inside ourselves.” It was a natural thought just 11 years after WW1. Bernal is not entirely sure how well our attempts to transcend ourselves in this regard will turn out.

What is striking about The World, the Flesh & the Devil is how contemporary it seems. Current books by current futurists still raise many of the same points and make many of the same predictions, even though we now are brushing the edges of technologies that were merely a distant notion in 1929. Bernal’s vision holds up pretty well. So do his reservations about how things will turn out given what he calls our mammalian natures.

Why do we enjoy writing and reading about a future we personally will not live to see? Perhaps it is just a way to divert ourselves from a present we find unsatisfactory; futurism thus can be the flip side to nostalgia. Perhaps, also, it is a way of including ourselves in that future – “a way of cheating death,” to quote Bernal in his “flesh” chapter. Does this work? Maybe a little. Bernal died in 1971, but I met him last week after a fashion. I’m sure he would have preferred to meet me (or anyone) in person though. Woody Allen: “I don’t want to live on in my work. I want to live on in my apartment.”

The Offspring – The Future is Now