Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Sleepy Day Flicks

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, more people say they are sleepy on New Year’s Day than on any other day of the year. The first day back at work in January came in second (57% vs. 45%). I think we know the reason why, and it hasn’t much to do with having stayed up until midnight the previous eve. So, many of us will be on our couches tomorrow with chips on the coffee table, aspirin in our bloodstreams, and TV remotes in our hands. (I personally plan to be hangover-free this year, but only because I’ve experienced being otherwise in past ones.) If the reader has seen too many Twilight Zone marathons to wish to see another one and is furthermore no big fan of college football, he or she might struggle to find something watchable with that remote. This past weekend I happened to watch (in one case rewatch) three movies, all of which I can recommend. By the end of the third, the funk should be lifting – depending on just how much overindulgence was involved.

Ad Astra (2019)
I almost saw this in the theater several months ago but ultimately opted for Joker instead. That was the right choice, but this would not have been a bad one either. (I could, of course, have seen both, but I don’t go to the theater frequently anymore.) The title (“to the stars”), as any first year Latin student knows, is part of several Latin sayings, notably ad astra per aspera (“to the stars through difficulty”: the motto of Kansas of all places) and sic itur ad astra (“thus one goes to the stars”: Aeneid IX 641).

Even scifi films that make an effort to portray spacecraft and space habitats realistically tend to make them overly polished. Not Ad Astra: here they are credibly worn, gritty, and lived-in. The special effects in the film are phenomenal without overwhelming the story. Brad Pitt pulls off a much deeper and contemplative performance as the astronaut Roy than I had expected from him.

Earth is suffering damaging EMP surges that seem to come from the anti-matter power source of a presumed-lost crewed probe beyond Neptune. The probe was designed to image planets in other solar systems. It is commanded by Roy’s father. The highly skilled but deeply flawed character Roy sets out to find the probe and destroy it. There is much in the film about personal identity, generations, morality, and whether meaning is to be found out there or within oneself. Lest that sound like too much philosophy and not enough action, there is enough of the latter, too. The pacing isn’t rushed, but at 2 hours it doesn’t drag.

For those who like hard scifi (e.g. The Martian), this is a solid entry.

**** ****

Ready or Not (2019)

Getting the balance right between humor and horror when mixing the two is no easy matter. A few pull it off including Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Ready or Not does, too.

Grace (Samara Weaving) marries a young scion of a super-rich family that made its fortune in playing cards and board games. Family tradition has her pick a game card from a very special game on her wedding night. Most of the cards are innocuous, but unknown to her one of the cards will declare her “it” in a game of hide-and-seek in which the family tries to kill her. Her only chance is to survive until morning. Naturally, she draws this card.

This is a warped but entertaining film with something to say about what people will do for love and money – and love of money.

**** ****

Road House (1948)

This has nothing to do with the better-known Patrick Swayze movie of the same title.

The 1940s were a marvelous decade stylistically and in the popular arts. Film noir defines the decade on the screen more than any other genre, and this noir drama is one worth seeing. Ida Lupino is superb as the world-weary performer Lily in a rustic road house owned by the somewhat unstable Jefty (Richard Widmark) and managed by his best friend Pete (Cornel Wilde). A love triangle develops. Betrayals upon betrayals including attempted murder ensue. There is suspense, fine acting, and a well-written script.

The clip from the film below is Ida singing about the reason so many of us are on our couches with remotes.

**** ****

If, after those three flicks you’re still feeling off, have some Alka-Seltzer and take a nap. Tomorrow all will be better… unless tomorrow is that work day that came in second in that AASM survey.

Ida Lupino - One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Paranoids Have Enemies Too

Tis the season for get-togethers with friends and family, and this year I’ve been to a few such including in my own house. In today’s hyper partisan world the old rule to avoid religion and politics is more advisable than ever – especially regarding the latter as ever more people make politics their religion and suffer no heretics. The temptation to be righteously offended is high. By and large, the rule was followed everywhere I was present. I say by and large because absolutely everything has become politicized including the food on the table and the wrappings of gifts, so complete avoidance is impossible... and then there are the conspiracy theories. These I rather enjoy when they come up in conversation, and fortunately a few did. I don’t mean I enjoy ones about contemporary politicians, which are wearyingly predictable in how they are advanced and received. (Fortunately, these were avoided.) I mean the ones less influenced by the emotions of the moment, such as those about JFK, MLK, RFK, Marilyn Monroe, faked moon landings, Pearl Harbor, the Illuminati, and so on. On a somewhat different level, let us not forget alien abductions, Bigfoot, live-Elvis-in-hiding, and Nessie. (In NJ, Nessie supposedly has a cousin named Hoppie in Lake Hopatcong.)

Many of these are not fringe beliefs, if by fringe we mean limited to a small percentage of the population. More than half of Americans believe the JFK assassination was the work of a conspiracy, for example. A 2016 Chapman University survey found more than half disbelieve the official account of 9/11. 33% of respondents said they believe the government is covering up the truth about the “North Dakota crash,” which was an unreal event entirely invented by the researchers for the survey. Underlying most of these is a tinge of paranoia: the notion that there are string-pullers behind the scenes who do not have the best interests of the rest of us at heart.

All of us have some opinions that will strike most others as odd, but what distinguishes someone who entertains a poorly supported hypothesis from someone who is a full-blown conspiracy theorist? It’s the habit of the latter of turning the burden of proof on its head: they demand that naysayers prove their theory wrong. Of course, proving a negative fact is seldom possible. Prove Marilyn wasn’t murdered. I can’t, but that doesn’t make it true. Can you prove you didn’t rob a convenience store in Allentown PA in 2002? Assuming you were old enough to do the deed in 2002, odds are you can’t. I can’t prove I didn’t (though I didn’t). Put another way, it is the difference between bias and prejudice. Someone with the former has an inclination to believe something but is persuadable by contrary evidence; someone with the latter has made up his mind (pre-judged) and will dismiss any contrary evidence as tainted. Everyone – absolutely everyone – has cognitive bias (See Blindspot by Mahzarin R. Banaji & Anthony G. Greenwald) but we still can choose not be governed by it – not to act blindly on the basis of it.

Intelligence is no barrier to odd beliefs and unlikely conspiracy theories. Quite the opposite. Michael Shermer (founding publisher of the magazine Skeptic, contributing columnist to Scientific American, and author of The Believing Brain) explains that intelligent folk are better able than duller folk to convolute, reinterpret, and interconnect data in creative ways. Moreover, they are every bit as motivated to do so: “our most deeply held beliefs are immune to attack by direct educational tools, especially for those who are not ready to hear contradictory evidence.”

Partly for this reason, I’m inclined to allow the odd bee in a person’s bonnet without it diminishing my opinion of him or her in a general way – provided the particular conspiracy theory isn’t actually vicious. Another reason is that there really are conspiracies in the world on large scales and small. On occasion the bee can be right. Edward Snowden, whatever one thinks of him, revealed rumors about the NSA were true. On a personal level, if you feel you are being followed, you might just be right: stalkers do exist out there. Even if a theory is wrong overall, it may yet contain a nugget of truth. I doubt the Illuminati are running anything from under the Denver Airport, for example, but there really are elites who interact with each other in the Bilderberg Group and elsewhere and who surely would like to run things if they could. Said Gore Vidal, “Anyone who isn’t paranoid isn’t in full possession of the facts.”

So, I’m happy (and entertained) to hear what people have to say about Roswell or Area 51 or HAARP or what-have-you. Despite my cognitive biases, I’ll even endeavor to remain open to persuasion. If persuasion fails, perhaps when I awake in an alien spaceship the joke will be on me.

Garbage - I Think I'm Paranoid

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Ballard’s Ballad

Back in the ‘60s when I discovered JG Ballard’s off-beat scifi (so much more fun than my school assignments), he instantly became one of my favorite authors. He continued to be up through his final (2006) novel Kingdom Come. He writes so elegantly that had he written user manuals for washing machines they would have been a joy to read. Fortunately he was more creative than that.

There often is a Lord of the Flies vibe to Ballard’s fiction, though with adults and triggered by an excess of civilization rather than the lack of it. Ballard came to believe that modern physical and social environments are so at variance with the natural world in which people evolved that our ids urge us to rebellion. When animals in zoos are enclosed in spaces radically at variance with their natural habitats they develop behavioral disorders. Ballard’s human characters do, too; being intellectual creatures, they couch their rebellions in philosophical terms, but there is really something much more primal at the bottom of them. In High-Rise, the residents cut loose in every imaginable way. In Crash the central characters find psychic release and erotic satisfaction in auto wrecks. In Running Wild, the children in an upper-crust gated community kill their parents. In Super-Cannes, highly educated professionals, egged on by a psychiatrist/philosopher, form gangs of roving violent thugs at night. In Millennium People, middle class folks rebel violently against their own suburban lifestyles, taking up terrorism and burning their own neighborhoods.

By 2019 I’d read the bulk of Ballard’s published work, but there were two full length novels I’d missed. They’re missed no more. 

Rushing to Paradise (1994) is a darkly funny novel written from the perspective of the adolescent Neil. Neil is mesmerized by the anti-nuclear/animal-rights protests in Honolulu organized by Dr. Barbara Rafferty, who has a controversial past involving assisted suicide. Ostensibly to “save the albatross,” she assembles an activist group to sail to the French South Pacific island of Saint-Esprit, which is being prepared for a nuclear test. [For historical context: The French continued nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific until 1995, and in 1985 sank in harbor the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, whose crew had intended a stunt much like that of “Dr. Barbara.”] Neil joins her expedition. The project attracts attention from TV and movie producers. Dr. Barbara and her followers reach the island but are forcibly removed by French soldiers amid a media circus. Neil is wounded in the foot.

Months later, they mount a second expedition, which Neil again joins. Arriving at the island they find the French military has withdrawn and that nuclear tests, at least for the time being, have been suspended. Dr. Barbara and her odd assortment of scientists, activists, and hippies establish the island as an animal sanctuary. Yet, charismatic leaders and their fanatical followers (of any ilk) often become brutal and dangerous when social restraints come off, and Saint-Esprit proves no exception. Despite all the sloganeering, Dr. Barbara seems singularly uninterested in the albatross. When Neil questions her about it, she explains to him that the real sanctuary is for women. The men have a way of dying on the island in the ensuing months; Neil eventually realizes his value to Dr. Barbara lies in not being a full grown man. Yet even the explanation she gives about this is an intellectualization by her of more primitive motivations.

The second novel, The Kindness of Women reveals much about JG Ballard himself. Ballard is most widely known for a very atypical book: the semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, based on his experiences as a boy interned as an enemy alien in WW2 Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Spielberg directed the movie adaptation in 1987. The novel The Kindness of Women is the lesser known sequel to Empire of the Sun. “Semi-autobiographical” understates it: it is closer to three-quarter. Maybe more. His lifelong obsession with death, repressed sexuality, and the thinness of civilization’s veneer becomes much more explicable in light of this tale.

The protagonist James Graham (which is what JG stands for) leaves the Shanghai internment camp, which is suddenly unguarded, at the end of the war. The teen’s first encounter while walking along railroad tracks away from the camp is with Japanese soldiers (still occupying the area) who are slowly killing a Chinese in civilian clothes. (There might or might not have been a reason other than random cruelty.) James knew by then not to question anything Japanese soldiers did, so he puts on an air of as much nonchalance as he can manage. He assumes his own odds of survival in this moment are 50/50 but the soldiers  just exchange a few mutually unintelligible words with him and don’t bother him; he and they pointedly ignore the bound civilian. He walks on. After James leaves China, he attends medical school, serves in the RAF, marries but suffers an early loss of his wife, and unexpectedly achieves some success with writing. All of those events parallel Ballard’s own life, of course. It is clear that the years in Shanghai always followed him – both the character “James” and his real self. They deeply impressed on him what people could be like when effectively unrestrained – and when imprisoned. As one might expect from the title, his relationships to (and with) the special women in his life (sometimes kind, sometimes ruthless, sometimes both) from the days in the camp up to the time of the Spielberg movie are crucial to his sense of the world.

All of us are haunted by our personal Shanghais. Most of us (though some not) are fortunate enough for them to have been less extreme than Ballard’s, but his writing slips us into his shoes easily.

Both books get a solid Thumbs Up.

Doris Day – Shanghai

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Egg Also Nogs

Eggnog is prominent on supermarket shelves this time of year. Homemade is vastly better, but I’m much too lazy to make it from scratch these days, so it catches my attention. I rarely buy it, however, because a glass contains as many calories as a lumberjack’s breakfast. (I do little calorie-counting, but there are some items that shout out for it.) As a kid I loved the stuff (the nonalcoholic variety, of course) and I still like it. Ready-made nonalcoholic eggnog is a relatively recent product, appearing in the late 1940s. Add your booze of choice as a shortcut to the adult version. Maybe sometime before New Year I’ll skip breakfast and have one or two – with or without the ethanol.

As it happens, the first alcoholic drink I ever had was eggnog. It was on a warm evening in Islamorada Florida during a family vacation between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I was 8. A dozen adults, my parents among them, were gathered under a beachside gazebo and had served themselves nog. A cup was handed to me before my mom sampled it and realized it was spiked. At this late date, I have no idea with what, but given the company and location it probably was rum. “Oh, it won’t hurt him,” my dad said. “There isn’t much in it.” My mom let it go. There wasn’t much in it either, as it had no noticeable effect whatsoever, though of course I wasn’t allowed a refill. That’s all there was to it. A decade later my relationship with alcohol became more complicated.

Sumerian kegger with straws
Humanity itself got a much earlier taste. Great apes today seek out fermented fruits, which can have as much as 5% alcohol content – about the same as beer. There is every reason to suppose hominins did the same. The natural supply always was limited. When human ingenuity removed those limits, humanity’s relationship with ethanol became more complicated. 8000-year-old shards of pottery from sites in the Middle East, China, and Georgia (Transcaucasian Georgia, not the one it’s a rainy night in) contain traces of beer, mead, and wine. Since this timing coincides with the advent of farming, some anthropologists have argued that the reason humans adopted farming (which is harder work than hunting and gathering while providing a less healthy diet) was not for food but for an abundant supply of grains for beer; if so, the credit (or, some might say, the blame) for civilization belongs to brewers. The first written records appear in Sumer 5000 years ago, and among them is a recipe for beer. Beer powered the overachieving masons in ancient Egypt as well. The classical Greco-Roman world favored wine. Asian cultures favored rice wine. Beers and wines max out at about 13% alcohol; beyond that, fermentation kills its own yeast. Those limits weren’t surpassed until the Middle Ages when playful Arab and European alchemists discovered how to distill spirits. (See earlier blog Whiskey a Gone Gone.) These powerful new drinks caused many problems, but it is hard not to notice that that the West grew stronger as its drinks did.

A useful and compendious history of humanity’s love/hate affair with alcohol, by the way, is Drink: a Cultural History of Alcohol by Iain Gately, though he has little to say about eggnog in particular.

Posset, something very much like eggnog, appears in the historical record in England in the 1300s. It was a mixture of eggs, figs, and ale. As the years passed, the ale was replaced by sherry and then by hard liquor. Other additives besides figs soon were tried. The word “eggnog” turns up in 18th century dictionaries, which means it is probably older. It apparently derives from the words egg and grog, and the recipe by then was essentially the same as today. Then as now the choice of liquor was a matter of personal preference. George Washington preferred a mix. He wrote the following recipe:

One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, pint rye whiskey, pint Jamaica rum, pint sherry — mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.

George’s eggnog packs a lot more punch than whatever I drank at age 8, which likely contained just a splash of Bacardi’s. If it is the one concocted surreptitiously at West Point, however, it explains the Eggnog Riot of 1826 in which 90 drunk cadets broke dishes, windows, and bannisters. All were disciplined but only 11 were expelled, which is a much milder response than I would expect today. Perhaps the Superintendent figured the morning after was its own punishment. I’ve never experienced one, but I understand eggnog hangovers are brutal.

George wasn’t the only President to share an eggnog recipe. Dwight Eisenhower was a bourbon man: one dozen egg yolks, one pound of granulated sugar, one quart of bourbon, one quart of coffee cream and one quart of whipping cream.

Bourbon is good, but if I ever get ambitious enough to make eggnog from scratch at home and pour a quart [.95 liter] of it in there as per Ike’s instructions, I’ll repeat my age-8 experience of stopping after one cup.

Straight No Chaser - Who Spiked the Eggnog?

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Tree Thing

There was a Christmas tree in the house every December when I was growing up. I immensely liked it as a kid and spent an inordinate amount of time sitting by it. I’m not really sure why. My parents owned three homes in my lifetime (all constructed by my builder father – I currently live in the last one) and none had any shortage of trees, including evergreens, outside on its lot. So, the presence of a tree in the house was special only by being in the house.
Presents showed up underneath it Christmas morning, of course, which might seem to explain my fondness for it, but there was more to it than that. I liked the tree for itself. The lights and decorations didn’t matter much either. The tree alone had some atavistic appeal. My dad must have felt it too, though he never outright said so. Yet, he not only always brought home a Christmas tree before either my sister or I asked for one, but during the rest of the year he followed the builders’ tradition of raising an evergreen when topping out the roof of a newly constructed house. It always was a sad day when the tree exited our house: usually on January 2, though a few times it dried too quickly and departed before the New Year.

The origin of Christmas trees is open to some debate. When the Council of Nicea standardized the dates of Christian holidays in 425 CE they quite sensibly chose dates that coincided with pre-Christian holidays. The transition was easier that way. Solstice celebrations in one form or another had existed pretty much everywhere. (The solstice fell on December 25 when the Julian calendar was adopted.) Many pagan holiday traditions such as Saturnalian gift-giving transferred readily to the new holidays. A millennium later, the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas (Easter, too) precisely because of these pagan origins. Formalizing the ban into law in 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony dictated: “It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.” They technically were right about the history… and yet they were wrong. One can't help suspecting (with HL Mencken) that the real worry the Puritans had was that someone somewhere might have fun. (The Puritan streak these days evinces more often in certain political ideologues, but the worry is the same.)

Getting back to the trees, ancient pagans north of Italy beyond the Alps celebrated the solstice in woodsy fashion by hanging evergreen wreathes, holding sacred grove ceremonies, and burning the Yule log. Christmas trees seemingly derive from these practices, but before the 16th century in Germany there is no mention in print of whole trees being brought indoors for the holiday. This was a late enough provenance to give Puritans an excuse grudgingly to tolerate the trees when they became popular in the US in the mid-nineteenth century with the arrival of large numbers of German immigrants.

Though my mom and dad grew up Presbyterian and Catholic respectively, they were not dogmatic in religious matters as adults, and became less so with each passing year. They sent me to an Episcopal high school, but only because they thought it was better than the public school. So, for the most part their seasonal decorations were just festive. When pressed about their spiritual opinions in later years they sounded rather New Agey. The moment came fairly early when I wasn’t even that: my skepticism regarding all things mystical kicked in at age 12. (I actually remember the moment of decision about it, but that is a separate story.) I became a determined secularist, and for quite a while maintained a Puritan-analogue adamancy about irreligiosity – a common youthful fault. While having no objection at all to fun (I quite enjoyed the hedonistic 1970s), for years I forewent any seasonal ornamentations on some sort of principle. I didn’t object to others (including my parents) having them, of course, but there certainly were no decorations or Christmas tree in my own dwelling space. I grew out of it: not the skepticism but the unholier-than-thou attitude about it. (People believe what they must in such matters, and I’m not inclined to try to change anyone’s mind.) Besides, the varied (ultimately Neolithic – maybe Paleolithic) origins of the seasonal celebrations that so distressed the Bay Colony court were the very things to give me an excuse to ease up a little even before I mellowed philosophically.

Evergreens in particular still have an atavistic appeal and I rather like the Neolithic heritage of marking a seasonal change with them. So, in 2019, as for many past years, there is a tree in my living room and egg in my nog. There will be gifts under the tree for friends and family on Christmas, too. Further, if I decide to build a small house for the stray cat who lives outside year round (something I’ve considered) I’ll raise an evergreen on its roof when it is topped out.

Autograph – Shake the Tree

Sunday, December 1, 2019

For Whom the Belles Toll

The usual suspects were on hand for Thanksgiving at my house, which this year also happened to fall on my birthday. 18 altogether of friends and family were there, though a few left early while a few others arrived late so 14 was the maximum at any one moment. The standard advice to avoid politics on such occasions is sound, and was very nearly obeyed. It was “very nearly” rather than “entirely” only because food itself is political nowadays. I suppose it always has been to some degree, but it is more fiercely so today. Enough tolerance was demonstrated all around to keep things mostly congenial however. There were dishes on hand for vegans and carnivores alike. (I’m unabashedly one of the latter.) It was nice to catch up with everybody in person rather than through social media. Remarkably, no one at the table had a nose in a phone. That was nice, too.

When the table was cleared, the fridge filled with leftovers, the sink left for later, and the guests departed, the question arose of how to employ the time before the arrival of the sandman. “Turkey coma” is something of a misnomer, since I always have been exceedingly awake after over-indulging in poultry, sides, and desserts. It is true, though that I’m not ever motivated to do anything useful in that condition. A movie was the obvious answer. Two 20-something friends have been rewatching all the Harry Potter movies the past week because the films remind them of what they charmingly and without sense of irony call their youth. This brought to my mind another flick set in a British school: The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954).

My first instinct was to recommend the movie to the two Millennials, but first instincts are not always wise. If they were, enough intelligence for second thoughts never would have evolved in hominins. That’s not to say we often make use of it. I’ve made the mistake before of trying to introduce favorite books and films to people for whom they were unsuited, only to bore the recipients to tears. No snobbery is intended by “unsuited”: few of those recommendations were highbrow, and I’ve received my share of recommendations for which I was unsuited, too. When it comes to classic films (“classic” in the sense of older than the 1990s rather than necessarily “great” or even good), young people generally have to find their own way to them. They can’t be pushed, or they will dislike them on principle. So, as quiet returned to the house Thursday evening I spun up the DVD for myself.

Ronald Searle infused his 1940s cartoons with a dark humor much of a kind with that of Charles Addams. The hellion schoolgirls of St. Trinian’s were a recurring subject for him. Searle is not as well-known today on this side of the pond as he was during what I call (with quite proper lack of irony) my youth. Back then The Belles of St. Trinian’s and its sequels aired frequently on television. They haven’t for the past few decades, and the 2007 St. Trinian’s sank like a stone. Searle is worth rediscovering. He occupies a space on my shelf next to Addams. The 1954 movie remains the definitive adaptation, and if you have found your own way to classic films but haven’t yet seen this one, do yourself a favor and do so.

Alistair Sim is marvelous in a dual role as the headmistress Millicent Fritton and as her underworld brother Clarence. Millicent describes her educational philosophy thus: “in other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared.” The plot involves a race horse owned a sultan father of new student: he had chosen St. Trinian’s for her only because it was near his horses. Millicent hatches a scheme to rescue the near-bankrupt school by betting on the horse though Clarence and the Sixth Form girls have contrary plans. In a subplot, police Sgt. Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell) goes undercover as a substitute teacher to uncover illegal activities at the school. There is a thoroughly enjoyable celebration of anarchy throughout the film. Keep in mind it is 1954, and the flick is intended to be kid-friendly, so don’t expect Quentin Tarantino, but it is still as much fun to watch as it was when I first saw it decades ago. It wrapped up my Thursday nicely.

Field hockey at St. Trinian’s

Sunday, November 24, 2019


When Paleolithic painters scrawled images on cave walls 20,000 years ago, critics viewing them by torchlight argued about whether they enlightened or corrupted society and about whether they should be censored. We don’t know that for a fact, of course, but since critics have argued about art in this way since there have been written records, it is not a big stretch to suppose they did so earlier as well. There always has been tension between supporters of unfettered artistic freedom and supporters of… well… fetters. Moralists see it as a choice between decadence and decency – sometimes between outright evil and decency. Moralists of a different stripe see the choice as prudery versus liberty. Beneath this tension is the more basic question of the purpose of art. Does it have a purpose? If so, should art uplift or simply reveal?
Decadent art?

The dramatic arts, when they came along, moved to the center of the debate. In the 5th century BCE Euripides was regarded by conservative Athenian critics as decadent – even dangerous – compared to his elders Aeschylus and Sophocles. Sophocles himself remarked, “I depict men as they ought to be. Euripides depicts them as they are.” Indeed, though Sophoclean characters have their tragic flaws, there is a core of nobility in them. Euripidean characters, by contrast, at their cores are likely to be adolescently voyeuristic (Pentheus), cruelly vengeful (Phaedra), callously opportunistic (Jason), or murderous (Medea). Even Aristophanes, who was pretty edgy himself, satirized Euripides in The Frogs.

When drama moved to the movie screen the tensions remained unresolved. They are to this day. 100 years ago censors (acting sometimes through force of law and sometimes through social pressure) typically framed their objections in religious terms. Today the objections are more likely to be ideological, but whether the concern is cosmic sin or secular political correctness, the effects (and one supposes the underlying impulses) of censorship are similar. Neither side in the debate gets the upper hand permanently. Nannies and libertines trade off ascendency from one era to the next. One very special era in movie history was that of the early talkies (1927-1934) when censors were largely ignored: the pre-code era.

In order to head off regulation by Congress the Motion Picture Association adopted a self-regulatory production code in 1927 and updated it in 1930, but the studios in practice didn’t pay heed to it prior to 1934. Faced in that year with a more serious threat of legal restraints, The Motion Picture Production Code (commonly called the Hays Code) began to be broadly enforced by the studios. The code states, “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” A long and detailed set of rules for following the code (describing, for example, how married couples may be depicted in a bedroom and how long a kiss can last) soon developed alongside the code itself. All but a few of the restrictions would find support from PC censors today, albeit for differently stated reasons. Directors found ways to push the envelope, of course. In Notorious (1946) Hitchcock famously got around the 3-second limit for on-screen kisses by having Grant and Bergman kiss repeatedly over 3 minutes, but never more than 3 seconds at a time. Still, the code remained a real force until the mid-1960s. Prior to then, many of the most interesting movies ever made were pre-codes.

The better of the pre-code films portray people as they are, which uplifting and PC films do not – at least not in any rounded fashion. Fundamentally well-meaning people have dark sides: they can scheme and cheat. People who are fundamentally villains can be kind and generous in any number of ways. Pre-code characters have that complexity. They are human. Once again, that is in the better films; every era generates its share of garbage, and the pre-code era is no exception. A marvelous DVD series of films from this period is Warner Brothers’Forbidden Hollywood Collection. I have owned for some time the first two volumes which contain such B-classics as Baby Face and Night Nurse. Last week I added Volume 3 to my shelf and binge-watched its six movies. All six are directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, best known for Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), A Star is Born (1937) and Nothing Sacred (1937). The films in Volume 3 are nothing so ambitious. They are small films, but are interesting nonetheless, not least because they mostly deal with ordinary people:

Other Men's Women (1931)
Best friends Bill and Jack are fireman and engineer on a railroad locomotive. Bill is single and devil-may-care while Jack is married and responsible. When he makes an extended visit to Jack’s home, Bill and Jack’s wife Lily (Mary Astor) form a mutual attraction. Trouble ensues, but not in a simplistic way. There are mixed motives, unintended consequences, and guilt all around.

The Purchase Price (1932)
Night club singer Joan Gordon (Barbara Stanwyck) breaks from her underworld lifestyle and her gangster lover Eddie by changing her name and answering a mail-order bride ad posted by a farmer in North Dakota. As one might imagine, Joan doesn’t adjust readily to country life. Her husband Jim (George Brent) is handsome but frequently behaves as a stubborn jerk. Their marriage accordingly gets off to a rough start and is a long time being consummated. To complicate matters, Eddie tracks her down and shows up at the door.

Frisco Jenny (1932)
Jenny (Ruth Chatterton) was raised in what nowadays would be called a “gentleman’s club” owned by her father at the turn of the century. When the 1906 earthquake hits, the club is destroyed, her fiancĂ© and her father are killed, and she finds she is pregnant. Jenny gives up her child but keeps track of him over the years while she achieves criminal prosperity by running a prostitution ring and later by running alcohol. Her son becomes the DA. Not knowing she is his mother, he prosecutes her on capital charges.

Midnight Mary (1933)
As Mary (Loretta Young) awaits the verdict of her trial for murder, we see in flashback Mary’s journey from falsely arrested teenager to prison inmate to cavorter with gangsters. A wealthy lawyer falls for her and tries to change her life, but her past catches up with her, as pasts tend to do.

Heroes for Sale (1933)
Presumed killed in a raid on a German position in WW1, Tom (Richard Barthelmess) is actually severely wounded and captured. After the war he returns home addicted to morphine (from his treatment in a POW hospital) and finds that another soldier has taken credit for his heroics. He gets clean and tries to make a new start in Chicago. He does well and marries Ruth (Loretta Young). Then Ruth is killed in labor unrest and Tom is falsely arrested and convicted. Upon his release Tom takes to the road as a hobo.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
In the Depression, high school sophomores Tom and Ed hop a freight train out of their Midwestern small town so as not to burden their unemployed parents. They meet many kids their age who are doing the same, and they team up with a runaway named Sally. They are traveling in search of work, but wherever they go the kids face violence (including sexual assault) and unwelcoming police. When they get to New York, an opportunity arises but a run-in with the law complicates matters.

None of these films is unforgettable, but every one is a solid argument on the side of the artistic libertines. Thumbs Up.

Clip from Frisco Jenny: in 1906 before the quake, working girls relieve customers of cash

Sunday, November 17, 2019

On a Day Like Today

Nothing lasts forever. We certainly don’t. The oldest fully documented human lifespan (that of Jeanne Louise Calment) was 122 years: 1875-1997. There have been claims of longer lives. Tom Parr of Shropshire supposedly died at 152 in 1635 after overindulging as a guest of Charles I. Odds are, though, he had claimed the birth record of his grandfather as his own because he enjoyed the notoriety of being old and hale. Record-keeping was hit-and-miss in the day, so it was an easier deception to pull off then. Even if accurate, however, 152 is short enough in the scheme of things.

Many people externalize fears about our own personal deaths by contemplating the end of humanity instead. Hence the popularity of apocalyptic literature, which in religious and secular forms is as old as literature itself. In his book The Day It Finally Happens, Mike Pearl writes, “But a certain breed of science nerd seems to take actual comfort in an ultimate and inevitable apocalypse – or if not comfort, per se, then a certain gleeful, misanthropic relish.” Indeed. Pearl doesn’t relish such thoughts, but they do preoccupy him. Pearl describes himself as suffering from an anxiety disorder that prompts him to be a writer: “it fills my head with ideas but I hate the ideas.” As a “coping strategy” he writes a Vice column “How Scared Should I Be?” for which he researches the actual risks of his various fears coming true and what the consequences would be. He finds the process soothing somehow even when the risks turn out to be rather high. The Day It Finally Happens discusses a score of those hateful ideas.

Some of his chapters truly do involve high order calamities such as nuclear war and the next supervolcano eruption. Others do not: for example “The Day the UK Finally Abolishes Its Monarchy.” That day, which he gives a 5 out of 5 plausibility rating, will not herald the end of civilization in the UK or anywhere else. (I avoid the subjunctive in deference to his possibly debatable 5/5 rating, at least anytime soon.) It will end the name “UK,” which will be replaced by a United Something-Else, but other peoples have survived the transition to a republic, and so will the Brits. Also unlikely to be world-ending is “The Day Humans Get a Confirmed Signal from Intelligent Extraterrestrials.” Whatever one thinks of his 4/5 plausibility rating for this one, such a signal most likely would be a stray indecipherable transmission from hundreds of light years away (or much much farther) thereby making any meaningful two-way communication impossible. More Heaven’s Gate-style cults might spring up here and there (invest in Nike?), but it is doubtful much else would change. Some chapters discuss two-edged swords, such as “The Day Humans Become Immortal.” This is a pretty good day from an individual standpoint, but were it to happen (he gives it a 3/5 plausibility rating, though not in this century) even a tiny fertility rate would crowd out the planet in short order. Actually, even if we somehow ended all deaths from aging and disease, we would not be immortal. Assuming we otherwise remain human (no cyborgs or engineered invulnerabilities), we will have fatal accidents, and sooner than one might think. Actuarial tables show that it would be the rare human who survives much beyond a millennium. (Population still would be a problem even so.) 1000 years is pretty good, though, Voltaire’s warning about lifespans in Micromegas notwithstanding. I’ll take it.

As mentioned, some of Pearl’s scenarios are legitimately scary such as “The Day Antibiotics Don’t Work Anymore” and (given the dependence we already have on it) “The Day the Entire Internet Goes Down.” Yet, Pearl is (despite, or because of, his anxiety disorder) fundamentally an optimist. All of his scenarios would be hard on at least some of us. A few would be widely horrific. Yet, none is an utter extinction event. His researches show that nuclear war, climate change, and supervolanoes are all survivable by some. This comforts Pearl. “I feel a very strong sense of revulsion when I imagine my entire species literally going extinct,” he explains. “Don’t you? If you don’t, I’m not sure we can hang…”

I’m not sure we can hang. I don’t dispute his survivability assessments for his scenario list. I just am sure there will be worse days than the ones about which he writes – including one that ends us all. Whatever we do or don’t do to our climate in this century, for example, earth in the longer term has lethal plans of its own. There was once a mile of ice piled on top of where I am sitting right now, and there will be again one day. Civilization will be a little tough to maintain in this spot. (No jokes, please, about whether civilization exists in New Jersey at present.) Astronomical events have all but wiped the slate clean on earth in the past and will again. The sun itself has a limited life span, and the planet will become uninhabitable long before the end of it. I don’t really worry much about it, and not just because probably none of these things will happen in my lifetime. If there were some way to collect the bet, I would bet our machines will outlive us. They have a better chance of surviving off-world for the long term – though, again, not forever. That’s OK. We accept our own ends. Why not Our own End? We’re here now. That counts for something – maybe everything. Right now, I quite literally smell the coffee. I’ll go pour a cup.

Skeeter Davis – The End of the World

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Well, Maybe Not the Eve

1965 was one of the more notably transformative years for me personally. The year one turns 13 is for most people: one falls from the apex of childhood to the lowliest rank of teenager, a change commonly driven home by the start of high school. It was the year I became very self-conscious in both good and bad ways. Much of the “feel” of the year is still very real to me. I have many strong sense memories from the year including smells from such various sources as horse stalls, mimeograph paper, and (permeating nearly all interior spaces) tobacco smoke. My favorite album that year was Animal Tracks. (I still like Eric Burden and the Animals; I caught a concert by the septuagenarian last year.) To my classmates back then I pretended my favorite was Highway 61 Revisited because that was a cooler answer. I did, in fact, like that album (and Dylan in general), but not as much as more straightforward rock. (A quick look shows that the vintage Highway 61 Revisited vinyl is still on my shelf.) My first fumbling attempt at a flirtation was deliberately ignored or honestly unnoticed – either is possible. Meantime the world was turning on its head. To be sure, I was aware of the cultural milieu to the extent someone that age ever is, but it seemed normal to me. The fish, as the adage goes, does not notice the water in which it swims.

My mom noticed. I remember her saying in 1968 that in the previous few years “the world just went crazy.” This was from someone who had been a teenager during World War 2. Still, I knew what she meant. (By then I had evolved a little beyond a fish apparently.) The presuppositions of the very Leave It to Beaver era of my childhood (I even looked a little like Jerry Mathers) had shredded – quickly. Anyone who lived through the 60s knows just how distinct the two halves of the decade were. 60-64 were just the 50s amped up a little. “The Sixties,” as we usually think of them, were the second half of the decade, which spilled over into the early 70s. A minor example of the shift: compare the Beatles albums Meet the Beatles (64) and Sgt Pepper (67).

My mom’s assessment (stated somewhat more academically) is shared by many from across the philosophical spectrum.  Nicholas Leman, Professor at Columbia University, says that the 60s “turned as if on a hinge” in 1965. George Will independently uses the same hinge metaphor. Charles Murray in Coming Apart identifies the year as the moment when the country began to…well…come apart in the ways that are all too obvious today. Cultural critic Luc Sante (The New York Review of Books) comments that western culture reached some sort of peak in 1965 and has been in decline since. Even crime became qualitatively different (see my review of Evil by Michael H. Stone and Gary Brucato) as standards shifted. Major social changes don’t really happen without a prelude, and the roots of The Sixties are discoverable in the subcultures of The Fifties if you look for them. Nonetheless, politically, socially, and culturally the country reached a tipping point in ’65, and from there the rapidity of change was dizzying. We are still dealing with the aftermath in innumerable ways.

James T Patterson aims to capture those twelve months in The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America." The author, who was a 30-y.o. (as in don’t-trust-anyone-over) professor at the time, has a perspective different from mine (not a criticism, just an observation) but does a pretty good job covering many of the key elements. The title refers to a 1965 hit song that never would have charted just a year or two earlier. Patterson details a busy year for national and world events. President Johnson openly committed US combat troops to Vietnam thereby missing the last chance to avoid Americanizing the war. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (outlawing public and commercial discrimination “because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 took hold and promised real improvements. Yet on the street there were racial confrontations in Selma and all out riots in Watts. Great Society programs coupled benefits with unintended social consequences. Patterson writes of the role of youth culture, of student organizations such as SDS, of the generation gap, of the credibility gap, of sexual politics, and of the environmental movement. The easy confidence about the future that had been so much a part of American psychology for a century fled as political divisions deepened in ways that haven’t healed since.

The book is worth a read. If I have a reservation, it is the short shrift he gives to the apolitical (and, some would argue, more important) aspect of the counterculture that flowered (bad pun intended) mid-decade: the part about personal enlightenment and alternate ways of living. Timothy Leary: “When the individual's behavior and consciousness get hooked to a routine sequence of external actions, he is a dead robot, and it is time for him to die and be reborn. Time to ‘drop out,’ ‘turn on,’ and ‘tune in.’" This, admittedly, was a Revolution that failed (regrettably) in broader social terms, but it still has a legacy that matters on another level.

Why care about 1965 in 2019?  There is always something to be learned from watershed moments of the past. As Professor Joseph Wittreich (not Mark Twain despite the common misattribution) remarked, history doesn’t repeat but it often rhymes. A little prep work helps us to sing along.

Thumbs Up on the book – not way up but up.

Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction (1965)

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Have Not

From movie commentaries, I knew that the 1944 film To Have and Have Not bore almost no relation to the 1937 novel of the same title other than featuring a fishing boat owner named Harry Morgan and the prevarication “Ernest Hemingway’s” in the promotional material. The movie is set in Martinique in 1940 when the island was still controlled by Vichy France. Not an adaptation, it is basically Casablanca reset in the French Caribbean though the dynamic between 19-y.o. Lauren Bacall and 44-y.o. Humphrey Bogart is different (on and off film) from that between Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the earlier film – so different that Bogie and Bacall became an item and eventually married. Even that gossipy aspect of the film makes a better story than the novel.

Hemingway is a towering figure in American letters, though the quality of his work varies a lot. (Whose doesn’t, one might fairly ask.) I’ve enjoyed most of his short fiction and a couple of his novels, but struggled to get through others despite his well-crafted sentences. When at long last I picked up To Have and Have Not last week, it was a struggle. Nor was this just my own reaction. After slogging through it, out of curiosity I checked the 1937 review by J. Donald Adams in The New York Times. He writes, “The expertness of the narrative is such that one wishes profoundly it could have been put to better use... Mr. Hemingway's record as a creative writer would be stronger if it had never been published.” Indeed.

Harry Morgan, married with children, is presented as a Have-Not even though he owns a charter fishing boat. In addition to legitimate jobs he smuggles contraband and people between Havana and Key West. He is crude, abusive, obnoxious, and racist, even by 1930s Florida standards. I suppose this is to reinforce his representation as a common man, but if the intent is thereby to make him sympathetic (could that possibly be the intent?) it backfires badly. A rich Have recreational fisherman charters Harry’s boat but cheats him of his fee. This leaves Harry stuck in Cuba without money, so he traffics with criminals and revolutionaries, commits murder to keep an illegal job on track, and undertakes to smuggle Chinese illegal immigrants into the United States. Instead, he bilks the Chinese and strands them on a Cuban beach. Somehow we’re supposed to feel sorry for him when things go bad at the end because he’s a Have-Not. We don’t. (At least I hope most readers don’t.) The Haves in the book are reprehensible, yet Harry behaves far worse than any of them. Further, he doesn’t take responsibility for his actions because of his social position. Hemingway was influenced at the time by the Marxism of his compadres in the Spanish Civil War, but if the intended message was pro-working class it comes across almost backwards.

Recommendation: Be kind to Ernest and skip this book. Opt for A Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls instead. Or watch the movie (screenplay by Jules Furthman), which is quite good.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

All That Glitters Is Not Silver

A couple weeks ago I advised passing on the latest blockbuster and walking down the multiplex hall to the indie film with three or four viewers. I neglected to follow my own advice when Under the Silver Lake was up against Avengers: Endgame last spring, but I made up for it yesterday by spinning up a DVD of the flick. *SPOILERS* of a sort follow, though more regarding the film’s subtext than text.

Anyone seeing this movie without any prior knowledge of it is likely to think right at the outset, “Oh, a David Lynch movie.” It’s not. The director is David Robert Mitchell (It Follows) whose homage to Lynch is so close as to be initially distracting; fortunately, enough transpires on screen for that reaction to fade.

The protagonist Sam (Andrew Garfield) is jobless, behind on his car payments, and facing eviction. He makes no effort at all to rectify this. So, at first glance he is a slacker loser. Yet this is not quite right. He is energetic and diligent at pursuing his interests. Those interests just don’t include the banalities of everyday responsibilities. He is charming enough to do very well with the ladies (including Riki Lindhome) despite his impecunity. He has enough boyish charm to keep viewers in their seats, too, even though he is often creepy and sometimes villainous. He spies on a topless middle-age neighbor even (driving home the Freudian element) while talking to his mother on the phone. When kids vandalize his car he punches them – hard. We see him commit homicide; granted, the fellow had shot at him, but retreat was very much an option. There is a dog killer stalking the neighborhood, and (though the killer is not identified) there is reason to wonder if he is Sam.

Sam’s real interest is a common one in our secular world: a search for meaning beyond just drudgery and paying bills. As a friend remarks to him, “Where's the mystery that makes everything worthwhile? We crave mystery, 'cause there's none left.” Not everyone handles nihilism well; they frequently find some obsession (politics is a favorite) to divert themselves from it. Sam wonders if there is a conspiracy of in-people who run the world for their own benefit and have access to deeper revelations that they keep to themselves. This is his obsession. He begins to see secret codes everywhere by which the insiders communicate with each other. Some of his hypothetical codes are crazy even in the context of the movie (e.g. Vanna White’s eye movements), but some turn out to be real, such as messages recorded backwards on popular music. When a neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) with whom he has a flirtation disappears, a symbol is left behind on the wall of her apartment. Sam’s investigation of her disappearance gives him real leads to the conspiracy, thereby putting himself and others in danger.

The movie makes no mention of the Illuminati, but in the real world there are people with views similar to Sam’s who do believe in them. Suppose they exist. Suppose that underneath their worldly machinations there is an occult purpose. What if, after arduous effort, you discovered the secrets of the Illuminati only to find they are as credible as those of the Nike-wearing Heaven’s Gate guru? Depending on one’s mindset, the revelation could be shattering.

FYI, there are a lot of self-referential hidden codes in the movie, but none of them are important. (Animal images share first letters with the title, for example.) Only bother with them if you enjoy puzzles of that kind for their own sake.

This surrealistic noir is definitely not for everyone. Yet there is more to it than will be found in the CGI battles of the spandex superheroes who dominate the box office.

Thumbs Up