Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Sanguinary Cinema

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

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

**** ****

This Gun for Hire (1942)

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

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

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

Still a Thumbs Up.

**** ****

Wanted (2008)

The movie adaptation balks at the full nihilism of the source. In Mark Millar’s extremely violent comic book series “Wanted” (2003-2005) Millar confirms every nightmare you ever had that the world at the very top is run by a sociopathic criminal elite. The members are unabashedly self-serving. They assassinate for their own selfish motives. The narrating character enjoys his psychopathy, his criminality, and his membership in that elite. He scoffs at the reader for being a sucker.

In the movie “Wanted” the assassins are an ancient order working on behalf of Fate, whose designs can be deciphered from the weave of fabric. (This presumably is from classical mythology’s tapestry of the Fates.) They might not understand why certain targets are chosen for them to kill, but they assume they are serving some higher purpose. Nonetheless, they have no qualms about criminal activity or collateral damage while doing it. The movie is almost as brutal as the comics, but the change in motivation changes everything. I still liked it despite its philosophical timidity, but it requires a high tolerance for movie violence.   

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

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

**** ****

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

Trailer: This Gun for Hire (1942)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Forever Sumer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sirenia – In Sumerian Haze

Sunday, October 22, 2017

October 21 Derby Double

There was no shortage of ladies on wheels in Morristown last night with a roller derby double header. First up was an intraleague bout by the New Jersey Roller Derby Junior Division (ages 8-17). The league divided into White and Blue. The ad hoc teams were better matched than might appear by a just glance at the final score, for while White took an early lead and kept it, Blue then prevented the lead from growing by matching point for point until the final minutes of play. Several skaters on each team jammed with success; #10 Mia Slam and #6 Luna Chick did consistently well for Blue and #15 Fast n’ Furious for White. White jammer #7 Darth Skater made a quadruple pass through the pack. Both teams’ were adept at forming blocking walls and making individual hits. Lead jammers more often than in adult bouts chose to go for points rather than strategically call off jams when closely pursued by an opponent, but this is youthful enthusiasm that is hard to fault. In the final minutes White expanded its lead and the young skater Bam Bam gave White its final points of the game. Final Score: 206 – 268 in favor of White.

Luna Chick (jammer) and Phantom Panda (blocker) for Blue
Bam Bam (jammer) and Alice in Horrorland (blocker) for White

**** ****

In the adult match, New Jersey Roller Derby (NJRD) on its home rink faced Wilkes Barre Scranton Roller Radicals. The bout was characterized by sometimes brutal blocking and unusual speed on the track. At a time when formation blocking dominates the sport, more than once NJRD blockers instead prevented a Radical lead jammer from scoring by picking up the pace enough to keep the pack ahead of her. Veteran NJRD jammers #11 Tuff Crust Pizza and #44 Maulin Rouge showed their usual fancy footwork get around and through blockers, assisted by teammate blockers breaking Radical walls, while #14 Ragna Rok scored points at key moments. #81 Burger and #2 Elysium were effective workhorse jammers for the Radicals. Burger repeatedly was able to simply push through NJRD walls or skate around them. NJRD picked up an early but very vulnerable lead and held it through the first half, which ended with the score at 88-54.

In the second half the Radicals returned to the track with noticeably ramped up energy and began to chip at the NJRD lead a few points at a time. Jammers for both teams often broke through the pack almost simultaneously and skated within a few feet of each other, usually causing the lead jammer to call off the jam. In the final minutes Elysium took the Radicals over the century mark putting the score at 119-100. Burger closed the gap further to 122-106, a point spread frequently overcome in derby in a single 2-minute jam. In the final jam of the evening #13 Sukkubus Strike broke through as lead jammer for NJRD and let the clock run out.
Final Score: 122 – 106 in favor of NJRD.

Burger (jammer) and Truffle Shuffle (blocker) for the Roller Radicals

Ragna Rok (jammer) and Rosa Ruckus (blocker) for the NJRD

Junior Laegue

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Soloing the Shore

The Jersey Shore from Asbury Park to Wildwood long has attracted pretty good music despite (or perhaps because of) the proximity of NYC. In my younger days I occasionally drove there to clubs, notably to The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. In recent years, though, I’ve neglected the Shore in favor of closer venues or NYC, but my favorite surf band unexpectedly turned up on the schedule of The Wonder Bar, the second most famous club in Asbury Park, so I hopped in my Chevy and aimed southeast.

It doesn’t take much to be my favorite surf band since it typically isn’t my preferred style of music. I’ve been on a surf board no more than twice in my life. However, Messer Chups is actually good at it, and the group intermingles horror themes with ironic humor. This being Halloween month, I didn’t want to miss them live. Messer Chups is from St. Petersburg, Russia – not normally regarded as a surfing capital. The band is on tour to promote the new album Taste the Blood of Guitaracula.

The drive down reminded me why I generally skip Shore venues these days. Rush hour(s) traffic was inescapable given the timing. I fully understand why anyone whose only experience of NJ has been crawling along the Garden State Parkway while trying to cross three lanes of snarled traffic so as not to miss an exit has a negative opinion of the state. Judging NJ by this is a bit like judging Los Angeles by rush hour on the 405: not entirely unfair, but mostly. From my home address, it is actually easier and quicker to get in and out of Manhattan than Asbury Park. I sympathize with the poor souls who commute along the route every day for work.

The Jersey Shore is not really like…well… Jersey Shore or movies like Don Jon. But as with the highway stereotypes there is a kernel of truth under the pile of rubbish. In denim shirt and jeans and a corduroy jacket I was overdressed, excepting a few of the younger women in their dancing dresses. Strangely, I was not outside the age demographic in The Wonder Bar. There was no dominant demographic. There was the full range of barely legal to white-bearded veteran fans of the original surf bands such as The Ventures or Dick Dale. There were college students, bikers, those odd middle-aged men in berets, and old hippies reeking of pot. I could not have stood out by any method short of wearing a beanie with a propeller. I wear one of those only on special occasions.

Anyway, after the opening band The Black Flamingos were done – being a hometown group they had their own fans present – Messer Chups stepped up and put on their usual good show. It was worth the drive, but I probably won’t be making it again any time soon. At least the trip back was largely traffic free except for the bear waiting for me in my driveway. I opened the car window and turned up the volume on the Messer Chups cd. He moseyed out of the way: not a surf rock fan, I guess.

Messer Chups – Magneto

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Recap: Jerzey Derby Brigade vs. Mason-Dixon Roller Vixens

JDB (Jerzey Derby Brigade), hoping to keep its undefeated 2017 record intact, last night on its home Morristown track hosted the Mason-Dixon Roller Vixens (MDRV) visiting from Hagerstown, MD. Early signs were that JDB would do just that. Pushing through very well organized blocking by Mason-Dixon, #3684 Californikate put JDB into a 10-point lead in a power jam. Gains by one side, notably by #00 Mental Block and #235 A Bomb, were balanced by gains by the other, notably #88 Poison Princess and #1958 Thee Mighty Isis, leaving the point spread little changed at half-time: 79 - 66 in favor of JDB.

The second half from the start looked different from the first as Mason-Dixon hit its groove. With a power jam by #14 Mystery May Terror, despite a solid hit by #221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes, MDRV overtook JDB 87-90. Thanks to spirited jamming and effective formation blocking MDRV expanded its lead to 28 points. That is a vulnerable lead in derby, however, as Californikate proved in the 16 point power jam that put the score at a very competitive 107-117. Poison Princess rebuilt a 25 point lead in a power jam, however, and the clock began to work against JDB. Despite gamely skated jams and rough-and-tumble blocking by JDB skaters, MDRV built on its lead in the remaining minutes. #88 Poison Princess brought the bout home for Mason-Dixon by putting 28 points on the board in the final jam.

Final Score 139 - 228 in favor of Mason-Dixon.

For Mason-Dixon Roller Vixens #22 Lucretia McEvil as blocker, #88 Poison Princess as jammer
For Jerzey Derby Brigade – #221 Det. Dure-Block Holmes as blocker, #00 Mental Block as jammer

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

This Week’s Sequel: Not Just a Replicant

Blade Runner 2049 has received glowing reviews from nearly all the major critics. It is a sequel to a movie that regularly scores in Top 5 lists of the best science fiction movies ever made. So why were there only 6 people (5 plus myself) in the 350 seat theater where I saw the movie? Nor was this an anomaly. The opening weekend ($31.5 million in the US for a movie costing $150 million) doesn’t even rise to the level of disappointing. One reason is evident from my handful of co-viewers: all but one was a guy and no one was under 30. This was not an anomaly either. Viewers so far overwhelmingly have been males over 25.

It is easy to forget that the original Blade Runner was in theaters 35 years ago. Today’s prime theater-going demographic was more than a decade away from being born. (One may note that the original also flopped at the box office in 1982; it gained cult status later on video.) Younger Millennials and iGens don’t have the same affection for the original that older scifi fans do. Furthermore, Blade Runner 2049 is not the fast-paced action-packed smash’em-up (e.g. The Avengers) that modern audiences expect – a fact discernible from the trailer. The film unfolds leisurely for 164 minutes. While there is no shortage of violence, it is largely confined to specific characters without the city-destroying spectacular mayhem so prevalent in flicks lately. Many theatergoers apparently don’t trust that less flashy elements of the movie (such as the script) can hold their attention. As it happens the stay-aways are missing out, for there is much to offer in this film. The bleak but gaudy cityscapes and landscapes are visually impressive while grounded in the vision of the original movie (and of Philip K. Dick’s novella), and the script is intelligent.

Never mind the impossible timeline: scifi movies chronically are set much too near in the future (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey). In this alternate earth, space and bio technology advanced at a far more rapid pace while the environmental and demographic collapse is more severe. As in the first Blade Runner, replicants (bio-engineered people) are manufactured and used as a servile caste on earth and in space. The newer models have more obedience built into them than the older ones, but there is evidence they can evolve beyond those restrictions. Though a replicant himself, “K” (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner, a law enforcer tasked with hunting down and eliminating those errant models, particularly the older less controllable ones. K has a VR companion Joi (Ana de Armas) whose machine artificial intelligence raises the same question (is she “real”?) with regard to him that he faces with regard to natural-born humans. The replicants are unable to reproduce in the natural way, but it seems that two older models (yes, that’s where Harrison Ford fits in – reprising old roles is getting to be a habit with him) managed to do it, showing that such a design is possible. (This is precisely the key plot element in R.U.R., Karel Capek’s 1920 play about self-aware robots [the word “robot” was invented by Capek], so it has a venerable heritage.) Blade Runner 2049 asks questions about the nature of personhood, of individuality, of family, of group identity, and of servitude.

All in all, it was a well-spent 164 minutes. Thumbs Up.

By the way, the answer to the question about personhood – unarticulated but inherent in the movie – is that it belongs to any entity able to ask the question consciously.

Blade Runner 2049 – Trailer

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Fireside Fiction

On days when terrible events fill the news, which on a global basis is every day, the mundane events in a quiet life seem trivial. Yet, they also make one grateful for the chance to be trivial.

One such unimportant event was the covering of the pool a few days ago, a moment that always makes me wistful. I’ve written before on the impracticality of swimming pools in this part of the country (see Closing Time). Affordability issues aside, were I to build a home from scratch I would not include one. (My current home was built decades ago by my parents for themselves, and they did want one.) The amount of trouble and labor outweighs the fun – and there is the cost. However, it is there, so I make the most of it. Since early-May I’ve started every morning, including many of less than 50 degrees (10 C), with a dive in the unheated water. (Yes, the pool has a heater but, except on rare occasion for company, I never use it; the heater wasn’t lit once in 2017.) The dive is an effective wake-me-up. By October, however, it’s courting hypothermia. So, the cover goes on and my personal autumn begins. I balanced the pool closing with a flue opening: the first use of the fireplace since April. There are worse ways to initiate a season than a quiet evening with a fire and a good book. The book was a classic mystery novel: The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, chosen for a title that seemed appropriate for an extended goodbye to summer.

All of us have an anarchist streak. In many of us it is subdued and in a few it is dominant: it’s the part of us that regards the law as something well-suited for the constraint our neighbors. We ourselves, on the other hand, chafe under the same constraints. Hence the popularity of antiheroes so long as they are not actually sadistic and have enough likable qualities for us to identify with them. We applaud Dirty Harry even though we oppose allowing police really to act like that. We admire the crew of the Firefly class ship Serenity even though they are insurrectionists and thieves. James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance strives to bring the rule of law to a Western territory, yet he achieves this by extra-legal means and we’re OK with that. We like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, too. The point is not that these characters go out of their way to violate the rules, but rather that they live by their own. In practice, many folks willingly trade such independence of thought and action for security, but not without regrets. The Grateful Dead are not normally the first philosophers I reference, but they did lyricize poignantly about traveling one’s own way (besides, the tune is playing on my stereo): There is a road, no simple highway/Between the dawn and the dark of night/And if you go no one may follow/That path is for your steps alone.

The Long Goodbye was Chandler’s favorite novel. Few critics agree with him, but this is to be expected. Artists of any kind are always fondest of the creation that is most personal to them, which seldom is the one that appeals most to others. I side with Chandler on this one, but that too is for personal reasons. Published in 1953, fourteen years after The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye features a detective Philip Marlowe whom time has not mellowed. On the contrary, he is older, more jaded, more tired, and more cynical than ever before. He believes corrupt politics, corrupt police, and organized crime are the inescapable price of civilization, and he shrugs at this. He considers the law to coincide only infrequently with ethics, and he ignores it when it is inconvenient. Yet despite appearances Marlowe is not a misanthrope. Marlowe explains his seemingly inexplicable actions to a frenemy cop, “I’m a romantic, Bernie. I hear voices in the night and I go see what’s the matter.” It’s a telling statement for the character and for Chandler himself: while it may not be obvious on the surface, both character and author ultimately are romantics.

Basic premise of The Long Goodbye: Marlowe befriends a man named Terry Lennox and puts himself on the wrong side of the law by helping him. He then puts himself on the wrong side of the powers-that-be when Lennox seemingly is murdered and Marlowe investigates. He simultaneously is plied by a beautiful and complicated woman to help in a case involving her husband, the commercially successful but alcoholic hack writer of thrillers Roger Wade, an ironic caricature of Chandler himself. There are side plots as well, but in Chandler novels they always tie together in the end. We often are punished most for our good deeds, and that is the case here. Yet even though the people Marlowe tries most to help prove in the end not to have been worth it, he doesn’t regret having tried. It’s that romantic thing again.

There is of course a difference between living by one’s own standards and killing by them. While the fellow currently in the news might be no more than a nut (we don’t yet know), true believers and idealists are most often the most dangerous; they justify their mayhem as a means to a better world. Better to be cynical but romantic.

The Grateful Dead – Ripple