Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Print and Pixels

This week's reviews:
 Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy
History never gets done being written. No matter how masterful a treatment by a historian (e.g. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon), a revisit to the same subject is always welcome, for what concerned readers in the 18th century is different from what concerns readers in the 21st. Pax Romana by historian and classicist Adrian Goldsworthy was released in August of this year and is a welcome addition to the literature on ancient Rome. It is not a general history but focusses on the nature and evolution of Roman imperialism. Today “imperialist” is an insult, but only a century ago it wasn’t. For all of history prior to then – not just in the West but everywhere – imperialism with an entirely good conscience was the default foreign policy conducted by powers around the world.
The Romans never questioned imperialism. While Julius Caesar did not conquer Gaul from altruistic motives, he had no doubt that the Gauls for all their casualties were better off for the conquest. There is even something to the argument. Caesar didn’t really kill more Gauls than would have died anyway from battle and pillage – the Gallic tribes and towns regularly fought, sacked, and enslaved each other as a matter of course. His campaign was devastating but fairly swift, and when he was done the province was at peace and had been united with a larger Mediterranean civilization. Roads, baths, libraries, and aqueducts soon followed. Goldsworthy explores what it was about the Romans that made them such successful imperialists. Why was there only one permanently successful revolt by a province (Germany east of the Rhine), and even that one in a place where the Roman hold was new and tenuous? Why, in general, did territories conquered by Rome remain Roman – and soon self-identify as Roman?
The short answer is that the Romans employed a peculiar mix of tolerance, brutality, and inclusiveness. They were quick to stamp out rebellion ruthlessly but were almost as quick to hand out citizenship – and they didn’t interfere much in local customs. Though the deeply authoritarian instincts and casual brutality of the ancient Romans are jarring to modern sensibilities, there is nonetheless something refreshing about their self-confidence that their empire was good not just for themselves but for whomever they conquered. By and large the provincials agreed.
Thumbs Up: well-researched and a good read.
 **** ****
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008)
By 2008 writer/director/producer Joss Whedon had a hefty passel of dedicated fans thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. I wasn’t one of them. The late ‘90s and 20-naughts were eventful ones (mostly not in a good way) for me, and a lot of popular culture passed me by – including Joss’ TV shows, films, and comic books. I am one of them now. In recent years a few of his movies caught my fancy and prompted me to look back to his earlier work.
One of Whedon’s most idiosyncratic productions is Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008), which I got around to viewing only last week. Buffy fans will remember that one episode in 2001 was a musical. Joss must particularly have enjoyed writing and directing it, for he returns to the format here. Despite some notable star power including Neil Patrick Harris and Whedon veterans Nathan Fillion (Firefly) and Felicia Day (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), this was never intended as a serious commercial venture. The 42 minute microbudget production is pure playfulness that was given away for free on the internet. You still can find it there, but if you prefer to pay for it the DVD is currently available as well.
Even though this is just lighthearted fun, Whedon as usual blends genres and messes with expectations. It is a comedy and a melodrama. The superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) truly does fight the good fight and is on the right side of things; yet, he personally is a self-important jackass for whom it is impossible to root (see clip below). Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), on the other hand, truly is a villain in his public actions, yet he personally is a likable and sympathetic character. Whedon is not averse to happy endings but has no commitment to them at all in any genre, so, here as elsewhere in the Whedon-verse, until we see it we viewers know only it could go either way or anywhere in between.
Thumbs Up: Surreal and definitely not for everyone, but if one simply can accept the silliness it will evoke a smile.

“Captain Hammer”: Everyone’s a Hero 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Sheep’s Clothing

Leaving a roller derby bout last Saturday, I espied what I took to be a full moon and couldn’t help but think of werewolves. A check of the lunar calendar showed it was the day after the full moon, but by tradition the werewolves are active for the three days on and bookending the full moon, so it was still a werewolf night. I didn’t encounter one, but when I got home I watched Wes Craven’s wolf movie Cursed (2005). Despite the presence of Jesse Eisenberg and Christina Ricci, this film gets mixed reviews because, I think, it is mixed genre thereby disappointing purists. It is playful without being a parody, rather in the style of a Buffy episode. I like it: lightweight but pleasant enough.

Nonhuman (or not quite human) monsters in books and film never scared me as a kid – at least not since the age of 9. They weren’t credible and so not truly frightening. All-too-human villains were the scariest to me – and still are – simply because their ilk does exist: e.g. psychopaths of the type found in M, Blue Velvet, and Kalifornia. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy monster movies back then. I did. I still do, for monster movies are not all about the scare. They tap into something more. The monsters are our darker selves. The big three of horror movie monsters are vampires, werewolves, and walking dead – the latter colloquially called “zombies” though that strictly speaking is an inaccurate term in the absence of voodoo. Occasionally, one or another of these types of creatures gets overexposed in the entertainment media and vanishes for a while but they always come back. They recur because they exhibit something primal in a way that other common archetypes do not: for instance, it’s a pretty sure bet that there won’t be many teen soap operas about mummies or creatures from black lagoons.

What do the big three offer? The walking dead seem relatively simple: they play to a fear of death that we handle by taunting it, much as we do on Halloween. Vampires are more complex. They combine the death wish with the libido and they are weirdly romantic; it is no accident that “vampire” was ‘20s slang for a seductress. They are also immortal (barring encounters with sunlight or stakes), which neatly combines the death wish with the survival instinct; Freud postulated that a part of us desires the peace of the end even as we struggle against it. The werewolf by contrast is pure animal instinct. Libido is there in force as well: not as romance, however, but as lust, which of course has its attractions, too. The werewolf is the id unleashed. Which of the three monsters is one’s favorite probably tells a lot about a person, though I’m not sure if it does so by correspondence or by opposition. I’ve been in the werewolf camp since the first time I saw Lon Chaney Jr.’s version of The Wolf Man; this year, as it happens, marks the 75th anniversary of its release. Though not the first werewolf movie, it is the one that most firmly established the modern conventions and made them permanent in the landscape.

Lycanthropes have a long legendary history, and not just in the West. Stories of transformations of people into animals were common all over the world in ancient times. The wolf always was a favorite. The second century novel The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius (the Robert Graves translation is still the best) describes transformations of humans by witchcraft into various animals including – unfortunately for the protagonist – an ass. Ovid tells the tale of Lycaon whom Jupiter turned into a wolf because it better suited his savage nature. In early modern times werewolf trials in Europe were contemporaneous with witch trials. In 1521, for example, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun were convicted of being werewolves and were executed; it wasn’t too much of a miscarriage of justice since evidence indicates that they really were serial killers. More problematical is the case of Peter Stumpp in 1589; his neighbors claimed to have seen him transition from wolf to human. He admitted to being a werewolf: also to murder, incest, and cannibalism, but he did so under torture. He was executed on the wheel. So were his wife and daughter, presumably for harboring a criminal. It’s very possible he was indeed a murderer, but the eyewitness accounts of his metamorphosis have to give one pause about their general reliability.

In present-day storytelling, lycanthropy is commonly represented as a disease transmitted by a bite, much like rabies. So too with vampires or zombies. I’m not a big fan of bites, but if I have to choose one I’ll still pick the one that will cause me to hang with the wolves – albeit not with Herr Stumpp. Guys like that give werewolves a bad name. Compared to the other two of the big three, the wolves seem to me to have more fun.

Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs - Little Red Riding Hood (1966)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Diamond in the Rough: Derby Bout in Morristown

The Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) dominated a bout Saturday night on its home track in Morristown despite a gamely skated second half by Diamond State Roller Derby, visiting from Delaware.

Bouts commonly are won or lost by the defense, but last night both teams deployed effective and well-coordinated blocking. JDB’s jammers simply displayed skill at getting around or through it. #22 Apocalyse put the first points on the board for JDB. In the following jam JDB’s #8 L’il Mo Peep, despite being taken off her feet by a block from Dianmond State’s #42 Calamity Roo, passed through the pack five times. #64 Madeleine Allight and #3684 CaliforniKate also had repeated success, the latter making good use of apex jumps. Assisted by a deeper bench of fresh skaters, JDB led 154-13 at halftime.

Diamond State redoubled efforts in the second half with several skaters taking turns as jammers with some success, notably by #613 Slashley Voorhees, #8 Copa Kabangya, and #30 Cookie Monstrosity against firm JDB blocking. Both teams racked up points, but the JDB lead from the first half was daunting. CaliforniKate took JDB over the 200 point mark. Diamond State spunkily pushed to get past 100, and #13 Betty Rocker succeeded in the very last jam of the bout.

Final Score: 290 – 101 in favor of JDB.
MVPs: Copa Kabangya (jammer) and Betty Rocker (blocker) for Diamond State; Apocelyse (jammer) and Det. Sure-Block Holmes (blocker) for JDB.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


On top of the offerings of the traditional networks, the number of offerings of “original series” from cable/satellite channels has continued to grow. None of us – or, at most, few of us – has the time or inclination to see them all. Among the ones I ignored during its original run (2009 - 2011) was the SHO series The United States of Tara even though it was produced by Steven Spielberg and created by Diablo Cody, the former exotic dancer who is one of the most interesting new screenwriters of the past decade. (See my earlier blog on her full-length movies The Devil Is in the Details.) The brief descriptions of the TV episodes provided by Dish when I was channel-surfing at that time left me with the impression the series was some kind of teen-oriented comedy, so I surfed on past it. My impression was mistaken. Relying on Cody’s writing and on the presence of award-winning actress Brie Larson, I recently gave the first episode of Season 1 a belated chance. The experiment developed into an attenuated binge-watch (stretched over a couple weeks) of all three seasons.

Tara Gregson (Toni Colette) is a 35-year-old artist, wife, and mother of two who has what with admirable clarity was once called multiple personality disorder; today, in line with the modern penchant for obfuscatory euphemism, it is called dissociative identity disorder (DID). She and her family live in Overland Park, Kansas, which is about as middle-America as it is possible to get. But Noman Rockwell no longer resides in Kansas, any more than he does in Long Island or Miami or the East Bay.

Tara, we learn in the first episode, deliberately and with the support of her husband Max (John Corbett) has gone off her medications, which had made her dazed and foggy. They know full well that without medication her “alters” (other personalities) will re-emerge, but surmise that the only way to discover the root cause of her mental illness is to let them. DID typically stems from some severe trauma that a person escapes facing by becoming another person – or other people. Tara’s alters include a 15-year-old wild child, a prim 1950s-style housewife, and a beer-drinking gun-toting guy named Buck who successfully picks up chicks. New alters emerge during the course of the series including a 5-year-old and a New York psychiatrist. None seems actually dangerous at first, though there are some fidelity issues, but as Tara gets closer to the truth this changes.

Meanwhile Tara’s family has all the usual difficulties families face. Her teen daughter Kate (Brie Larson) makes questionable decisions about life, school, work, romance, and the use of the internet. Tara’s son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) struggles with his sexual identity. Tara’s sister reveals she is pregnant by someone other than her fiancĂ©. Tara’s husband Max seems to be the steady rock, but he isn’t. Max does love his wife, but is deeply frustrated by the situation and occasionally his suppressed rage surfaces and misdirects. We eventually learn that his mother (…calling Dr. Freud…) has mental problems too: she’s a hoarder who celebrates Christmas year-round. It doesn’t help that Max’s landscaping business is losing customers to cheap competition. Tara’s “transitions” rarely help in any situation.

Yet, oddly enough, for all the craziness there is a sense in which the Gregsons are fit portrait material for Mr. Rockwell. Max and Tara are the married biological parents of their children whom they have raised, and divorce doesn’t appear to be a prospect. That is very much the minority experience of American children in the 21st century; most spend at least some of their first 18 years with a single parent or with a stepparent.

The idea of a lead character with DID initially might have been a contrivance to attract ratings, but the execution works on more than just a superficial level. We all have different faces we show to the world in different circumstances – and we don’t always show the appropriate one. We all have unresolved problems, difficult families, faithless friends, financial stresses, and complicated (often unhealthy) motivations. Life throws an endless stream of problems our way. We cope as best we can and try not to forget who we are.

Nothing in the show is played especially for laughs, yet it is often darkly funny. Not your average comedy: Thumbs up.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Equinox Knocks

In the grocery market this morning I wheeled my cart past shelves of Halloween candy. The bakery section is stocked with pumpkin muffins and cupcakes with orange icing. They’ve been out since Labor Day (September 5).

Hold on there dudes and dudesses! Don’t light the jack-o-lanterns yet. I like Halloween as much as the next chocolate addict, but it is not October. It’s not even autumn. It is still summer. I’ve never accepted the “unofficial end of summer” notion of Labor Day. The days are warm (88 F today [31 C]) here in northern NJ, the leaves are green (OK, a few red and yellow ones can be found, but you have to look hard for them), and my pool is open. Summer ends when earth’s orbit says it does: September 22 this year, and not before. I’m not ready to let it go until then. A local black bear agrees. He swam in my pool today.

It is easy to be negative about September. Even if “back to school” is in one’s distant past, the memory of it lingers. Autumn does eventually arrive during the month (not yet, not yet), and that reminds us of the approach of winter. Since prehistory, humans always have drawn a parallel between their own lives and the solar year, and we still do – e.g. Frank Sinatra The September of My Years. So, the fall reminds us of aging. Yet the ancients rather liked the autumn anyway. It was a time of abundance when the crops came in. In the weeks prior to the equinox the Romans held games (horse, chariot, and foot races and the like) while the equinox itself was a time for street and merchant fairs. Neo-pagans of various stripes in recent years have revived interest in equally cheerful ancient Celtic celebrations. Yes, winter will come, but for now, as they saw it, life is good. It’s not a bad way to see it. Maybe when the leaves do fall I’ll rake up a pile and jump in. I haven’t done that in a few decades.

But, once again, we are still this side of the equinox. It is still summer.

The Beach Boys – All Summer Long

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Wolfe at the Gate

One weekend in 1968, probably while ignoring my school reading assignments, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe about the adventures of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their 1964 cross-country tour in the psychedelic bus Further. The book reads like good fiction, but it is not. Wolfe’s exuberant writing style notwithstanding, it is journalism – and good journalism. The reviewer for The New York Times in 1968 wrote, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is not simply the best book on the hippies, it is the essential book.” It was and is. Ever since that weekend, the output from Tom Wolfe’s keyboard has been among my essential reads.

Not until age 54 did Wolfe turn his hand to fiction. Among his novels are Bonfire of the Vanities, which eerily presaged the Bernie Goetz affair, and I am Charlotte Simmons, which eerily presaged the Duke Lacrosse team scandal. Yet he never gave up on nonfiction and never respected sacred cows, especially in the arts. From Bauhaus to Our House skewered modern architecture, and his The Painted Word made abstract expressionism seem more understandable and less important to me than anything I’ve read before or since. Wolfe is now 85 and still busy. Released this month, his most recent book The Kingdom of Speech pokes the ribs of none other than that most "eminent of eminati" (a Wolfe-ism) Noam Chomsky.

While little more than a youth in the 1950s, Chomsky devised a theory of language that still dominates the field. He argued that all human languages follow similar rules and structures – so much so that a putative Martian arriving on earth would conclude that there is only one earth language, albeit with a multitude of dialects. There is, in essence, a Universal Grammar. This, he inferred, is evidence of hardwiring in the human brain. Human capacity for language, being hardwired, is therefore biological and therefore a product of evolution. Somewhere in the brain is the wiring for language – that uniquely human tool. Oh, other animals communicate, but none in the same nuanced way that allows planning for the future or discoursing on the meaning of life. Small problem: though general regions of the brain are involved in language (plus a myriad other things), no hardwiring specifically for language yet can be identified.

Wolfe introduces us to David L. Everett, a former dedicated Chomskyite who once had an office across the hall from Chomsky. Everett in the course of his field studies in Brazil encountered an Amazonian tribe called the Piraha whose structurally (though not phonetically) simple language does not follow the “hardwired” rules laid down by Chomsky. Before he takes us there though, Wolfe recaps the history of the theory of evolution starting with the Wallace/Darwin affair and the ever so “gentlemanly” scramble for credit.

I think this is part of what provoked the furious reaction in some circles to Tom Wolfe’s book – the other part may have to do with Chomsky’s politics, which endear him to much of the intellectual population. See Jerry Coyne in the Washington Post who writes, “Wolfe is basically an evolution denialist.” He is not. He so is not. I read the book and did not come away with that. And I don’t care about Chomsky’s politics when discussing the origin of language. Tom Wolfe, a self-avowed atheist, simply says that language is a problem when viewed in evolutionary terms. Darwin had a problem with it. Everyone since (including, recently, Chomsky) has acknowledged difficulties with it.

Speech, Wolfe suggests, is an artifact. At bottom it is no different than a stone axe or a scraper or a bow and arrow. It is a tool. It doesn’t need a hardwired region of its own. It just needs a brain with a high enough general intelligence to create artifacts. Please note that generalized brainpower is a product of evolution.

Is Wolfe right? I have no idea. I find Wolfe and Chomsky equally convincing – whomever I read last. What I do believe is that “authorities that be” (in this case Chomsky) ought not be taken on faith alone. No one ought to be taken on faith – except perhaps in those rare circumstances when there is no time to consider the matter at hand thoughtfully. Tom Wolfe provides a valuable service by asking if the emperor is wearing any clothes. Without rancor, let’s talk about it.

Linda Ronstadt – People Gonna Talk