Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Snow Sport for Couch Potatoes

The heavy snow this past Saturday provided a guilt-free excuse for lounging in front of the TV for the next few days. Whenever that irksome old work ethic crept back, I shoveled the walks and the snow piles in front of garage doors and basement windows until it went away. Soon I was back on the couch. Pocket reviews of seven titles to flicker across my screen while planted there are below.

Mother (1996) – John Henderson (Albert Brooks) is a scifi writer who has flawed relationships with women, primarily because he is always attracted to women who hold him in disregard. After his most recent divorce he decides, in good Freudian fashion, that his problems might stem from his relationship with his mother (Debbie Reynolds). So, he moves back into to his old room in his mom’s house to try to gain some insight. The premise might sound cerebral but the result is very funny in a low-key Albert Brooks sort of way. Sometimes we have to forgive our parents for being human – ourselves too. Thumbs Up.

The Mark of the Vampire (1935) – Bela Lugosi is back in cape and cuspids in this odd addition to ‘30s horror.

The luscious Irena plans to marry the marriageable Fedor “within a fortnight” but her plans are put on hold when her father dies from loss of blood; he has two puncture wounds on his neck but there is no blood at the scene. Friends of the family naturally suspect vampires are to blame. They worry that Irena will be the next victim, and they suspect Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Caroll Borland). But is there less to this than meets the eyetooth? The Prague police inspector thinks so. There is a twist to the ending that perhaps was less jarring in the original cut of the movie: 14 minutes were excised just before its release. If you like your vampire movies creepy from start to finish, you might want to skip this one, but if you don’t mind some self-referential playfulness, give it a try. Thumbs slightly Up.

I am Number Four (2011) – John Smith, aka Number Four, is one of nine teenage aliens hiding on earth: Paradise, Ohio, to be precise. He is just beginning to acquire his “legacies,” aka paranormal abilities. The nine are being hunted by alien baddies. In high school John meets the winsome human Sarah. The baddies show up.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. On screen, Earth has been visited by teenagers from outer space at least since Teenagers from Outer Space (1959). In the teen soap opera Roswell (1999-2002), eight teen aliens (two sets of four) are hunted by alien (and human) baddies; in West Roswell High School the alien Max falls for the winsome human Liz. The baddies show up. Um…yeah.

If you can sit through the first half of I am Number Four with all its teen angst and wearily unconvincing relationship issues, you’ll eventually reach some well-orchestrated whiz-bang action in the second half. Yet, this movie fails to make us care very much who, if anyone, walks away from the fireworks. If outer space teens are your thing, my advice: get the box set of Roswell instead. Despite a three-season budget that probably was lower than this one movie, it is a hundred times better and is ideal for binge-watching. I am Number Four: Thumbs Down. (I resisted a couple of obvious number-based puns.)

Breakfast on Pluto (2005) – In the Irish town of Tyreelin at the height of the 1970s disturbances, teen Patrick (Cillian Murphy) changes identity to Patricia “Kitten” Braden. She discovers that her father is the local priest (Liam Neeson) and that her mother lives somewhere in London. Her trans lifestyle is not exactly well understood in Tyreelin, so she moves to London to find her mother. There she is buffeted by both the kindness and brutality of strangers, and she is arrested for an IRA bomb that she didn’t plant. Released, she goes to work in a peep show where her father shows up to tell her where to find her mother. Posing as a survey-taker, Kitten meets her mother but chooses not to disrupt her mother’s new family by revealing her identity. There is more, but the plot, like life, meanders rather than proceeds to a goal.

This movie was recommended to me by a friend, perhaps because I once gave a semi-positive review to Myra Breckinridge. The two films have little in common however. Myra is a broad farce laced with philosophy on movies, sex, and society. Breakfast on Pluto is a very personal story, and any social observations in it arise out of the personal. Breakfast is the better movie, though be advised that at 2 hours and 9 minutes its pace is unhurried. Thumbs up.

Supergirl (1984) Supergirl was rebooted by CBS in 2015 for a weekly TV series that isn’t altogether terrible, so I was tempted to revisit the 1984 movie starring Helen Slater. (Slater plays the adoptive mother of Kara [Supergirl] in the 2015/16 TV series.) Aiming for camp, the 1984 version deliberately affects the innocent style of the first decade of comics in which the character appeared (1959-69).

Kara lives in Argo City – yes, I know it’s Kandor in the comics, but here for some reason it is Argo City – which had escaped the destruction of Krypton through some fancy dimensional shifting. Kara is the cousin of Kal-El (Superman). One day she is careless with the Omegahedron, a crucial power source for the city; about the size of a softball, it gets away from her and skips dimensions to earth. Kara follows in order to retrieve it. Like her cousin, on earth she has super powers. The power source, which landed in Midvale, Illinois, has been picked up by an occult practitioner named Selena (Faye Dunaway). Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Omegahedron gives the occultist power that is effectively magical. In Midvale, Kara takes on the secret identity Linda Lee and enrolls in a private girls school while she searches for the power source. She has teen troubles including an overenthusiastic suitor. She intervenes as Supergirl in a local disaster, so the public becomes aware of her. Eventually, of course, she must face Selena who is armed with a power source as Kryptonian as she.

Supergirl was nominated for two Razzie Awards and has a dismal 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet it really isn’t as bad as all that. Helen Slater makes a charming Supergirl: enough so to make this film a legitimate guilty pleasure. Nonetheless, it is not a good movie. It is slapdash in innumerable ways and the script needed at least one more rewrite. Thumbs Down.

American Ultra (2015) – There is a type of action movie that doesn’t usually appeal to me. In it, there is some bare excuse for the hero(es) or anti-hero to engage antagonists in combat. Everyone has astounding martial arts skills and is an acrobat who makes all Cirque du Soleil performers look like amateur pikers. The protagonist is also an amazing marksman who can make six kill shots at half a mile with a 9mm in midair during a double back flip. A couple hundred casualties later the movie ends; the supposed point of all the carnage is long since forgotten. I rarely make it to the end of this movie. The exceptions are films which display a darkly comic sense of their own absurdity (e.g. Kill Bill!, Kick-Ass, and Kingsman) without turning into out-and-out spoofs. It’s a difficult bullseye for a filmmaker to hit, and not many do.

So, I did not have high hopes for American Ultra. Yet, it isn’t a complete miss: not a bullseye for certain, but at least one of the outer rings of the target. Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) doesn’t remember that he once volunteered for a secret Ultra project in order to avoid prison under a three-strike law. The project was shelved and Mark’s memory of it has been suppressed. Mark knows only that he is an underachieving stoner living with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in Liman, West Virginia, and that he has deep-seated phobias about leaving town. When Ultra’s founder discovers that her rival in the agency plans to assassinate Mark as a way of cleaning up old files, she goes to Liman and activates him. Mark still doesn’t remember his time in the project, but his skills kick in anyway whenever he is threatened. As the effort to kill Mark grows ever more extreme, so does his knack for surviving.  The dark humor works well enough for a mild Thumbs Up.

X-Files (2016) – 23 years after their first TV appearance, Agents Scully and Mulder are back with new episodes. In the two-part season-opener, they find reasons to suspect their earlier conspiracy theories weren’t nearly twisted enough. What if extraterrestrials aren’t the real secret? What if they are a smokescreen for the nefarious schemes of humans? Mulder refers to a theory long proffered by some fringe historians (usually without – but in a few cases with – the extraterrestrial components) that an elite conspiracy has run the world at least since World War One. (See: It Isn’t Paranoia If They’re Really Out To Get You.) Without buying the theory, I nonetheless enjoyed the show as a “what if” scenario. The old team still has life. Thumbs Up.

Trailer American Ultra

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Tropic Snow

We live in an age of identity politics. We are concerned with the “rights” of groups – whether based on ethnicity, sect, sexual orientation, economic class, or what-have-you – rather than the rights of individual human beings. We bemoan “cultural appropriation,” uneasiness about which prompted the University of Ottawa to cancel yoga classes last year; meanwhile we fret about cultural imperialism whenever a McDonalds opens outside of North America. The old Enlightenment notion that rights are natural to people (rather than peoples) has faded. Sorry, Teddy Roosevelt, we’re embracing that hyphen: in fact, the more hyphens the merrier.

Personally, I’m a fan of cultural appropriation. I think it’s a grand way to expand one’s experiences as a non-parochial person. I don’t have a problem with granfalloons per se, but how many examples do we need of the ease with which the rivalries of such groups can turn deadly? While sites like Ancestry.com do a roaring business analyzing customers’ DNA to reveal the details of their ethnic heritage, it is well to remember just how recently (in the scheme of things) those ancestries converge to a single one.

Genetic studies show that 60,000 years ago the entire population of modern humans from whom we all descend numbered no more than 5000 people, a population smaller than that of the suburban fringe municipality where I live today. This alone makes it silly to take our modern granfalloons very seriously. From a location in East Africa they radiated across the African continent while a few hundred (yes, hundred) crossed to Arabia and populated the rest of the world, at first hugging the southern Eurasian coastline and hopping to Australia before infiltrating the chilly north and crossing to the Americas.

Strangely enough, the real point of this blog is their turn north. With a blizzard about to envelop the region where I live, that ancient push north looks to have been a bad move. I’ve dug out too many sidewalks and endured too many stabbing pains in frozen toes over too many years for snow and freezing temperatures still to be fun. Modern humans are tropical creatures from our gangly heat-shedding frames to our (largely) hairless skins. We are not suited to cold. What were our ancestors thinking when they saw snow and ice at the northern horizon and walked toward it? What am I thinking for staying at this latitude? Maybe they should have left those northerly territories to the Neandertals and Denisovans already occupying them. The early modern human migrants practiced cultural appropriation -- or just plain appropriation. True, had they stayed south they’d have missed out on some marvelous Wooly Mammoth steak barbecues, but all our toes would be a heck of a lot warmer today. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016


I first became aware of Camille Paglia in 1991 when her book Sexual Personae on the history of Western art, culture, and literature in terms of sexual mythologies from ancient times to the present became a surprise hit for the publisher. The book started life as a doctoral dissertation. I don’t remember what brought it to my attention. I recall discussing the book with my sister Sharon, however, so it is possible that she recommended it to me. In any event I was impressed by it. Paglia is deeply erudite, yet is as ready to discuss Elvis and Star Wars as Aeschylus or Jacques-Louis David while invoking thinkers both ancient and modern including. It is not an easy book but it is very much worth the effort.

Camille is impatient with modern post-structuralist criticism in academia and by ideologically driven interpretations of art and literature. It can be, she agrees, useful to analyze a poem or piece of fiction in terms of class, race, or gender, but it is, she insists, absurdly shallow to stop there. Art and culture are much more deeply rooted in the human psyche than that. She is not snobby about what she calls art. There are many analysts of pop culture these days, of course, but unlike most of them she integrates her thoughts on the subject with those on grander cultural traditions stretching back thousands of years. She is an increasingly rare sort of extensively and intensively informed intellectual who demonstrates why the word “intellectual” formerly wasn’t an insult.

I hadn’t thought much about her for a while, but last month Amazon’s “you might also like” algorithm recommended two of Paglia’s more recent books. I’m not sure how the bookseller came up with those, for Amazon didn’t exist in 1991 when I bought the last one. Nonetheless, I decided it might be right. So it was.

Over the past 25 years Paglia has grown ever more glum at the spread of cultural ignorance. In the 21st century it is common for students to graduate American colleges – with degrees in the humanities no less – without ever having read many of the basics of Western literature, without a proper sense of history, and without recognizing names such as Seneca, Donatello, or Rodin. She makes her own small effort to counter this in two books, each much less ambitious than Sexual Personae but still full of insight. In Break Blow Burn Paglia prints “forty-three of the world’s best poems” and appends a critical analysis to each that is accessible, scholarly, and intended to encourage focused reading of the text. Note the difference between “the forty-three of the world’s best poems” and “forty-three of the world’s best poems.” The latter allows for idiosyncratic choices starting with language: she doubts that poetry ever can be translated properly, so she doesn’t try. You’ll find in her book some of the basic English-language authors: Shakespeare, Blake, Dickinson, Yeats, Plath, et.al. Yet, in Paglia fashion there is also Joni Mitchell. Paglia does something similar for visual art in Glittering ImagesA Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. Neither book is intended for classroom instruction but rather for literate readers with an interest in Western culture who are dissatisfied with what they did learn in the classroom. Such an audience apparently exists: Break Blow Burn continues to sell well as it has since its release.

In interviews Paglia is frenetic, provocative, undogmatic, entertaining, and – despite her credentials as a gay 60s-era radical registered Democrat who voted for Obama– very un-PC. I’ll provide a link to one, but I urge the reader first to meet her on the printed page before going there. It’s the cultured way.

Joni made Paglia’s 43 with Woodstock. Paglia argues that the well-known Crosby, Stills and Nash version (which she likes) alters the imagery of the original in which the narrator is a young woman on a journey of self-discovery rather than a raucous male rocker on his way to a party.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Cave Canem

We all know dog people. The reader may be one. You know the people I mean: the ones for whom life without a dog (or two, or three, or five) is inconceivable, except perhaps for a brief moment between burying the last and picking out the next. I’m not a dog person. Oh, I like them well enough. It’s hard to improve on Mark Twain’s observation: “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.” But as an adult I’ve never owned one, mostly because a dog is one more responsibility than I want to have. Not that there is a particular number of responsibilities I want to have. Well actually there is: zero, but I’ve always found myself with considerably more. Don’t we all?

I grew up with dogs however. The first one I remember was a big goofy Great Dane named King.
King and I, c. 1956
When unattended he lived in a very large enclosure with chicken-wire fencing because if free he would run down the street and chase the neighbor’s geese: just for sport you understand. The neighbor objected; he was not a sportsman, I suppose. When my parents were around he wouldn’t run off anywhere, and so he came out and joined us. He was good-natured and even befriended our pet skunk, which he allowed to eat out of his bowl. King ate the diamond on my mom’s engagement ring though; one day he gave her hand a slobbering lick and the diamond was gone. She never found it. I’m not sure she really tried, for which I can’t blame her.
Woody 1969
It was the next Great Dane named Woody who overlapped the larger part of my boyhood and youth, and who was my companion of those years. He lived 12 years (long for a big dog); I buried him back by the barn in 1975. He was not so good-natured. He adored the immediate family, but he could be protective against others, and a protective big dog can be scary. He scared more than one person.

Four dogs barked at me protectively today as I ran various errands around the county. None of them scared me, but they reminded me of a recent read. Their barks lent credence to an argument made by Nicholas Wade (writer for Nature and Science) in his book on prehistory Before the Dawn.

Dogs are the first domesticated animal, predating agriculture by many thousands of years. They definitely were domesticated and widespread no later than 15,000 years ago, and there is some evidence for 40,000 BCE. Dogs are useful work animals if you make your living by hunting and gathering. They can assist in hunts, they can be pack animals, and, notes Wade, “They made good bed warmers during cold Siberian nights.” But they became these things after domestication from wolves. It is harder to see what our ancestors had in mind bringing wolves into camp in the first place. Wade argues it was precisely for the reason we still use them: watchdogs. They were protection – at the very least an early warning system – against other people. This alone was an enormous advantage in the Pleistocene.

We think of the modern world as a violent place, and not entirely without cause. There always are wars and physical assaults going on somewhere. There is almost a weird kind of humble-bragging in the commonplace contention that we modern folk are so much more murderous than our ancestors who lived a more natural lifestyle: “Yeah, we’re bad.” The opposite is closer to the truth. Life within hunter-gatherer bands of up to 150 people (they tend to split as soon as they get any larger) is pretty peaceful since anyone who does not play well with others is expelled. But raids on neighboring bands, tribes, and encampments for fun, women, or revenge are a constant part of life. Only in very recent years has it been suppressed to a large degree by encroaching civil governments. Early anthropologists often missed (perhaps were inclined to miss) just how large a toll these little wars took. Because each raid typically was a small hit-and-run affair that most often resulted in no casualties, it was easy for observers to dismiss them as hijinks. But because they were constant the effects added up. It was not uncommon for 30% of the adult male population to die from aggression. (This, as it happens, is the same percentage of adult male chimpanzees who die from aggression.) By contrast, even in the dreadful 20th century with its massive wars and ethnic cleansings, the number was well below 1%. Harvard archaeologist Stephen LeBlanc: “We need to recognize and accept the idea of a nonpeaceful past for the entire time of human existence.”

As a recent example, the !Kung (dubbed The Harmless People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in her early study) were found to be not so harmless by Richard Borshay Lee when he revisited the group for his own study and asked a different set of questions almost as an afterthought. After discussing hunting tactics and game with four !Kung men by a campfire, he writes, “it suddenly occurred to me to pose the question, ‘And how many men have you killed?’”
            “Without batting an eye Toma, the first man, held up three fingers, ticking off their names on his fingers…”
            The next two men had shot one person each with a bow, but said both survived. Lee describes the fourth man as “a kindly old grandfather.”
            “‘I never shot anyone,’ he wistfully replied. ‘I always missed.’”
            It turned out that even the internal homicide rate for the bands was 29.3 per 100,000. While this makes it a rare occurrence within a group of 20 to 150 people, it is still three times the homicide rate in the United States, which notoriously is high by First World standards.

The good news is that we evidently are capable of becoming more peaceful when we put our minds to it, but it is anything but a natural choice. (Freud, without knowing the numbers, came to this same conclusion in Civilization and Its Discontents; repressing our destructive natures is a source of unhappiness, he argued, but is a worthwhile trade-off for the benefits of civilization.) All the same, watchdogs still have their uses.

War dogs too. The most renowned US Army war dog was a mixed German shepherd/husky named Chips. In World War Two Chips was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. He had charged and disabled an Italian machine gun team pinning down American soldiers in the Sicily campaign, and on another occasion he had jumped into a pillbox, soon convincing the four men inside to surrender. The medals were revoked when parents of undecorated human casualties complained, but General Eisenhower congratulated the dog anyway. Chips bit him.

The Monkees - Gonna Buy Me a Dog

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The X-Smiles

Last night a Millennial (the group born 1980-2001) quasi-niece on a seasonal break from college hosted some of her friends at my house. Also present was a Silent Generation (b. 1929-1945) member. For their sake and mine, I, a Boomer (1946-1964), decided to give them all some space for a couple hours by going to the cinema. [Note: Commentators differ on the birth years for generations other than Boomers, but by no more than a few years one way or the other.] As luck would have it, I sat down to a film aimed squarely at Generation X (1965-1979). A significant part of the audience was a talkative Generation Z (aka “post-Millenials,” 2002-present) thereby fleshing out the age-spread for the evening.

Is it fair to identify people by generation? After all, every age group has its overachievers, its underachievers, its dreamers, and its cynics; attitudes and behaviors within a group fall along a bell curve. Nonetheless I think there is some validity to it; each age group experiences history in a distinctive way – or doesn’t experience it, as is the case for those too young to remember the Depression, World War 2, or Vietnam. This forms distinct age-cultures, and we’re all influenced by our culture. The center-line of that bell curve, in other words, can be in a very different place from one age-cohort to the next.

By chronological necessity, we all form our self-identities in our youths. So, our self-images are youthful ones. On the day we recognize middle-age staring back at us from the mirror it is a shock. Always. Generation X is currently looking in that mirror and is handling its middle-age crisis in its own distinctive way.

GenXers are a curious bunch. Thanks to the baby bust that followed the baby boom, they are only half as numerous as either the idealistic Boomers that preceded them or the aspirant Millennials who followed, and they accordingly are overshadowed by both. They self-identify as cynics and slackers. There is some justice to the “cynics” tag but the “slackers” one is unduly harsh. They have a high work-force participation rate and earn more money than did their parents, who  mostly are Silents and early Boomers. Perhaps they are just cynical about their accomplishments. It is true, though, that in real terms they haven’t managed to save nearly as much as their parents did at the same ages and their divorce rate is the highest of any generation ever: the two may be related. They might have good cause to raise an eyebrow at it all.

In the film Sisters, currently in theaters, GenX sisters Kate (Tina Fey) and Maura (Amy Poehler) Ellis are forced to look in the middle-age mirror when their parents inform them that the house in Orlando, FL, where the two girls grew up is under contract. The parents already have moved out; they tell their daughters to clean out their old room before the new owners take possession. Maura is divorced and Kate has a teenage daughter of her own who doesn’t live with her, but neither sister is emotionally prepared to let go of their childhood home. On the weekend prior to closing, the sisters decide to have one final blow-out party at the house; they invite their old high school crowd along with some new friends. The result is very much like a wild teen party when the parents are away, except the participants are 40-something with adult lives. In order to whip them up, Kate tells them that they used to party like animals because they thought they would live forever, but “Tonight, let's party like Vikings, because we know we could die tomorrow!” If Mr. and Mrs. Ellis thought they were done with the job of raising their daughters, they were mistaken.

Sisters is not a great comedy, but it’s not bad. I’m sure it speaks to those who are “suddenly 42” as well as to those who remember having been so. The Generation Z in the audience laughed at the potty humor, so there is something in the movie for them too. As for me, after driving home I was pleased to find my house much as I’d left it, and not at all like the post-party house in the movie.

There are lots of GenX anthems from which to choose (their music isn’t bad) but I’ll go with Radiohead