Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Homespun Movies

One of two cases

Today most movies viewed at home are streamed over Netflix or Amazon Prime or some similar service. Nonetheless, DVDs hang on. They have accumulated on my shelves since the days when they were the cutting edge in home video. It is silly to keep them without an intent to re-watch them at some point. In the current situation, as health authorities urge us to stay in our homes, it is as good a time to revisit some as any. These are seven (one per day) I spun up last week. All are worth a look. That is not a happy accident. I’ve thinned out the shelves during random re-watch schemes over the years (as long-term readers – there are a few – of this blog might be aware) by discarding the most groan-worthy. A few of the flicks below accordingly have received mention on this site before, but a second shout-out won’t hurt, so let’s do it again.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) – This silent film stars Kansas-born Louise Brooks though it was filmed in Germany. Plot: an unmarried teen named Thymian has a child thereby prompting Thymian’s hypocritical father to send her to a reformatory while placing the baby in the care of a midwife. The reformatory is run by a perverse sadomasochistic couple. Thymian escapes with another girl who takes a romantic interest in her. She discovers that the baby has died in the midwife’s care. She then goes to work in a brothel for a kindly old madam and marries a Count. This is a fascinating film on many levels.

The Philadelphia Story (1940) – The list of my top ten favorite movies has altered quite a bit over time, but in my adult life The Philadelphia Story always was on it and still is. Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) divorced Dexter (Cary Grant) after a short tempestuous marriage, and now plans to marry the self-made nouveau riche George (John Howard), who lacks not only the easy grace of old money but lacks its relaxed morality as well. A tabloid newspaper sends reporter Macaulay (Jimmy Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey) to cover the high society marriage. Macaulay is so self-satisfied in his disdain for the privileged class that Tracy calls him out for being a snob: “You're the worst kind there is. An intellectual snob. You made up your mind awfully young, it seems to me.” Throw in Tracy’s precocious younger sister, her crapulous uncle, and a father with a taste for chorus girls. Stir with dialogue that is intelligent, sophisticated, and funny (if occasionally un-PC), and you have a bona fide movie classic.

Hold That Ghost (1941) – No one expects an Abbott and Costello movie to be Shakespeare, but this is one of their better vehicles. The duo (here named Chuck and Ferdie) are gas station attendants who by dumb luck are in a car with gangster Moose Mattson when he is killed in a shootout with police. The terms of Mattson’s will state that, since he doesn’t know whom of his friends to trust, whoever is with him when he dies inherits his estate. The boys find they now own a spooky and isolated roadhouse: a former speakeasy and gambling joint. Moose’s money is rumored to be in the house. Strange things start to happen when they are stranded there overnight with other bus passengers. Perhaps the house is haunted or perhaps other gangsters are after the money. The movie is silly in the ways one expects with these two, but it has some comic moments that still work and it features numbers by the Andrews Sisters.

King Creole (1958) This Elvis Presley movie was made just before his stint in the army and is the best of any of them, before or after. Later films contain his most iconic movie numbers (e.g. the duet with Ann Margret in Viva Las Vegas) but as a movie the noir melodrama King Creole stands out. Elvis plays a high school dropout in New Orleans who gets a chance as a night club singer, but he makes some seriously bad choices and runs afoul of a gangster (Walter Matthau). He is torn between two women, nice girl Nellie (Dolores Hart) and the worldly Ronnie. A pre-Morticia Carolyn Jones is perfect as the over-educated moll Ronnie. When she flirts with Elvis on orders from her boss, Elvis complains, “Your heart wouldn’t be in it.” “You wouldn’t miss it,” she answers. This film was Elvis’ favorite, too.

The Night Stalker (1972) was a TV movie that served as a pilot for the short-lived TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75). A pushy newspaper reporter (Darren McGavin) willing to think outside the box suspects that a Las Vegas serial killer is a vampire. The movie also stars Carol Lynley. 25 years before Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a 1997-2003 TV show that I hold in high regard, unlike the 1992 movie) this film and the subsequent series had a similar combination of horror and understated comedy that clicked well. What Kolchak didn’t have that Buffy later did (besides teenage characters) were character evolution, multi-episode story arcs, and philosophical themes. Kolchak had a “monster of the week” format instead. Nonetheless, as a standalone modestly budgeted movie The Night Stalker isn’t bad.

Great Balls of Fire (1989)
For a brief moment in the 1950s, rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis (b.1935) was as big as Elvis. When tabloids reported that he had married his 13-year-old cousin, however, his career crashed. He never fully recovered his popularity, though he continued to work in smaller venues and to record – and still does despite a 2019 stroke. Despite some trite and stereotypical elements, this movie is a surprisingly good depiction of Lewis’ rise, fall, and survival. It stars Dennis Quaid, a young Winona Ryder, and the music of Jerry Lee Lewis.

Crash (1996), not to be confused with the 2004 movie of the same title, is directed by David Cronenberg and is based on the novel by JG Ballard. Cronenberg, a Toronto native, set the movie version of Crash in Ontario instead of the UK, which changes the tone but not the substance. The central character is named James Ballard (yes, really) and is played by James Spader. James barely survives a head-on crash that kills the other driver; he then encounters and becomes erotically involved with the other driver’s wife, played by Holly Hunter, who also was injured in the crash. They fall in with fetishists who tap into primal eroticism through car crashes. This group is led by the philosopher-artist Vaughan (Elias Kotias). Rosanna Arquette brings a special weirdness to her fetishist character Gabrielle. JG Ballard had a notion that modern life is so at variance with the natural world in which people evolved that it takes very little push to make us a little crazy – in this case tangling car crashes with eroticism. Rated NC-17, Crash is creepy, violent, sexually graphic, and not for the easily offended. But, in its own warped way, it has something interesting to say. Be selective with whom you share it, though; many viewers truly hate it.

A Re-Watch Anthem:
The Beach Boys – Do It Again

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Farmer’s Future

Every book – or movie for that matter – is a product of its time, and never more glaringly so than when it is “ahead of its time.” This is especially manifest in science fiction where every laudatory response of the type “Wow, I can’t believe this was written back in 1957” will be paired with a headshaking “Wow, this was written in 1957, alright.” The imaginative, freethinking, and socially unconventional HG Wells, for example, is nonetheless deeply grounded in +-1900 in ways that were invisible to himself. His unconventionality is very much of a Victorian/Edwardian brand. As a screen example, the otherwise groundbreaking Forbidden Planet is infused with 1950s sexual dynamics. The best works rise above their time even while remaining rooted in it, however, by revealing constant truths – truths which may be publically discussed in some eras, but only whispered in others. It is currently fashionable not to make allowances for past mores that are unacceptable today – a judgmental fashion that no doubt itself will cause eye rolls among our descendants – but one gets the most out of older fiction by doing so. That applies to one novel on my nightstand this past weekend; it is enjoyable if read in the context of its publication date.

Scifi master Philip Jose Farmer published Flesh in 1968, the high water mark of the counterculture that was so integral to the decade 1965 to 1974. The book arrived from Amazon on Friday. As you might imagine there is not much social distancing in it. (An earlier shorter version came out in 1960, but he rewrote it extensively in 1968.) It is very much of its era. And yet, it is much older, too.

A starship crew has sought out and found new habitable worlds. Thanks to sleep stasis and time dilation, they are not much older than when they left although 800 years have passed on earth. They return to a widely depopulated post-apocalyptic world on which technology is no more than 17th century (sail and animal power) in every way but biology: a religious order is quite skilled at bioengineering. The North American Eastern Seaboard is divided into several entities including Caseyland (New England), Deecee (New York to Virginia), Pants-Elf (Pennsylvania), and Karelia (a Finnish colony bracketing the others to north and south). The societies differ significantly but they play each other in a deadly variety of baseball. The balls are steel with spikes, the bats have metal plates, and it is perfectly legal for the pitcher to kill the batter (or a runner) by hitting him with the ball if he can. Casualties are expected.

The ship lands in the former city of Washington in Deecee. The crew discovers a pagan society dedicated to a fertility cult of the triple White Goddess (manifested by the waxing, full, and waning moon) whom they call Columbia. (They assume the White House is dedicated to her.) While men occupy many prominent secular offices (with titles such as John Barleycorn and Tom Tobacco), they are just executing the policies of the priestesses in this fundamentally matriarchal society. Arriving shortly before the winter solstice, the starship captain, whose name happens to be Stagg, is modified with antlers that hormonally influence him to behave according to his intended role as the year’s designated sun-king (having actually arrived out of the sky) in Deecee’s central mythology. The crew at first think they have landed amidst a free love free-for-all, but they have not. The orgiastic goings-on are ritualistic, which is not the same thing – they are a seasonal rite. The book interweaves the stories of three crewmembers (one of them Stagg) who try to make sense of and survive in the new world.

Philip Jose Farmer clearly was strongly influenced by Robert Graves’ 1948 book The White Goddess – and also by Frazer and Campbell though Graves seems to have had the biggest impact. The White Goddess is a rewarding read, though a difficult one for anyone not well-grounded in (at the very least) classical mythology and preferably Celtic as well. Robert Graves (classicist, poet, novelist – author of I, Claudius) argues (as does Frazer) that Neolithic (i.e. farming, but pre-urban and pre-copper) or earlier peoples throughout northern Europe, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean basin shared similar fundamentally matriarchal religions based on the seasons and the cycle of birth, life, and death. Their rituals involved a chosen sun-king who was either figuratively or literally sacrificed at the solstice under the auspices of the Triple Goddess (maiden, matron, crone) represented by the moon. Elements of this primal myth underlie later more masculinized mythologies of early civilizations; they are there to be uncovered if you look for them as are the ways in which they were transformed by the rise of warrior states. He looks for them, finds them, discusses the evolution of mythology from earlier to later forms, and additionally comments on such matters as tree alphabets and pre-literate numbering systems that had occult significance. He further argues these elements are still embedded in our culture (however obscurely) and that all true poetry (not everything that scans is poetry) figuratively or literally expresses some aspect of this most ancient myth:

“My thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry.”

Anthropologists differ on the value of Grave’s analysis. Some dismiss it outright as wholly imaginary, some find the evidence (admittedly interpretative) for it compelling, while others are agnostic since at this distance in time there is no way to prove or disprove the thesis. Something about it seems right to many readers though, for the book has been influential on historians, psychologists, major literary figures as well as pop culture authors such as Farmer, and practitioners of the pagan revival including Wicca. As to whether priestesses of Columbia will be grafting antlers onto sun-kings’ heads in our future, I guess we’ll have to wait 800 years to find out.

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Pagan Baby

Monday, March 30, 2020

Movies for a Socially Responsible Layabout

Plagues generally affect the populace unequally. Not all. The Antonine Plague (probably smallpox) of the 2nd century CE infected commoners and aristocrats alike including the emperor Marcus Aurelius himself. The germ theory of disease did not yet exist then, but it was well understood that contact with a person who had it was dangerous. (There was some notion it was carried by odors.) Galen, the leading medical scholar of the age and Marcus’ personal physician, repeatedly excused himself from any town, home, or location where the plague was present until he was actually ordered to attend to Marcus. He prescribed aged Falernian wine (you still can buy Falerno Bianco if you wish), which didn’t help but probably didn’t hurt. It perhaps kept that very philosophical emperor even more philosophical until the plague killed him. Most ancient and medieval plagues were urban events, so fleeing to the countryside was usually an effective way to escape. Not always. The Black Death was spread by flea-bearing rats, and rats were as happy in country homes and barns as in cities; this accounts for the unusually high death toll at a time when the population overwhelmingly was rural. Yellow Fever was very nearly an annual event in New York City during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the footsteps of Galen, many New Yorkers believed that alcohol was prophylactic, though they resorted to stronger stuff than white wine. Wrote Dr. G. H. Smith about the 1819 outbreak, "Never, I believe, was drunkenness so common."

The morbidity rate for Covid-19 is nothing comparable to that of any of those diseases. It is high enough, however, to have prompted the recent steps to block its spread. The effects of the virus on those who get it varies enormously: scarcely noticeable in some people, life-threatening in others. For the uninfected, the “social distancing” measures also vary in effect. For some of us the measures make little difference in our daily routines; if we are in an “essential” business other than health care we continue to go to work as usual. (One should note that "nonessential" businesses at some point become essential to keeping the essential businesses running – they can't defer white collar services and rely on warehouse stocks of replacement items forever – but we are not yet there.) For a small number of us (especially in health care) our work load has soared. The rest of us remain at home doing chores, reading, writing (some write blogs, I’m told), watching movies, and worrying about money. Films such as 28 Days Later are probably not among the prime movie picks.

My own DVD pick this weekend was Volume 4 of Warner Brothers’ Forbidden Hollywood pre-code classics. The pre-codes were films made before 1934, the year the studios began to enforce the Hays self-censorship code. They are often edgier than any mainstream movie for the next 30 years. This volume contains the following:

1.      Jewel Robbery is a romance tale with William Powell as a gentlemanly, dashing, and roguish jewel thief in Vienna. During a jewelry store robbery he attracts Kay Francis who enjoys romances beyond her relationship with her aristocrat husband. This is a well-regarded movie by most modern viewers and reviewers, though I’m not really the audience for it. I didn’t dislike watching it, but I’m not likely to rewatch it. The 1932 reviewer for The New York Times was also tepid about the movie, and even rude about the female lead: “Kay Francis, who can be a good actress, is a definitely bad actress opposite Mr. Powell, and that may be part of the reason why Jewel Robbery with its several endowments is only mild.”
2.      Lawyer Man with William Powell and Joan Blondell. Well-meaning but ambitious Powell runs afoul of the city’s political machine when his weakness for pretty women makes him accept the wrong client. Rather than stay defeated, he goes to work for the machine in order to get political clout and become DA. The ends justify the means. Thumbs Up. Not way up, but still up for its non-simplistic morality.
3.      Man Wanted. This time Kay Francis is the hardworking editor of 400 Magazine. She has an open marriage with her polo-playing playboy husband. She takes a fancy to her new secretary David Manners who has a fiancé whom he sometimes remembers. Once again, Thumbs mildly Up.
4.      They Call It Sin. The central character’s adoptive parents do anyway. Small town girl (Loretta Young) discovers that she is the daughter of a showgirl, not of the fiercely uptight couple who raised her. She goes to New York to get into show business, is cheated by a producer who steals her original song, gets into a complicated love triangle, and becomes ensnared in an attempted murder investigation. All that melodrama in 69 minutes. Not bad though, in a B-movie sort of way.

I’ll defer commentary on this weekend’s books to the next post. I’ll have time. I’m not going anywhere it seems.

Trailer Man Wanted

Monday, March 23, 2020

Harleen Casts a Shadow

When very young, pretty much all one experiences is contemporary popular culture – except in school where the other stuff rarely is made remotely appealing. Over time this changes, not least because the popular culture of our youth (cars, films, music, et al.) eventually gets designated “classic” and joins the “other stuff” taught in schools. For us it then requires some effort to be less than entirely clueless about things a teenager assumes “everybody” should know. Accordingly, for the past few decades there have been some books, TV shows, movies, bands, and such that I at least sampled simply because they were a significant part of contemporary culture. Not every faddish phenomenon gets a look. I just couldn’t bring myself to watch Twilight, for example, when it was a thing. But to this day I try to sample enough of the current offerings to remain at least intermittently part of the conversation when pop culture comes up at the dinner table. (Not that people sit at the same table at present, unless the requisite six feet apart, due to the pathogen that shall not be named.) Often the samples are distasteful, but sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. That was the case with a graphic-novel (ordered for the reasons above) that came in the mail last week.

Despite the box office failure of the recent Birds of Prey movie, the comic book villain Harley Quinn remains one of DC’s most popular and potentially bankable characters. Potential is merely that, however, so I didn’t have high expectations for the revamped origin story in Harleen by Croatian author Stjepan Sejic. I was delighted to discover a well-written, well-drawn, intelligent, adult-oriented presentation that never disrespects its readers by dumbing itself down. A proper screen adaptation of this would rival the recent Joker.

Carl Jung is never mentioned by name in the comic, but many of his views are inherent in the plot. Jung talked of the shadow self, meaning the hidden side of one’s nature including dark elements that we don’t display in civilized society (unless we are sociopaths). Rather than denying its existence, suppressing it, or trying to excise it (Dr. Jekyll’s mistake), Jung emphasized the importance to psychic health of integrating the shadow into one’s whole personality. Don’t hand the shadow the keys to the car, but accept without guilt that it will always at least be a passenger. It’s OK, in a simple example, to enjoy Dexter without taking up the character’s hobby. Failing to integrate the shadow risks having it unhealthily emerge, especially under provocation. Thirty-year-old psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel, despite her academic awareness of the unconscious and subconscious, hasn’t come comfortably to terms with those aspects of herself. Harleen is narrated by Harleen herself.

Dr. Quinzel has a theory about desensitization and loss of empathy in “normal” people that might be useful in treating not only them but even extreme psychopaths. She developed it from interviews with soldiers accused of excesses in combat areas. Her work attracts the attention of the Wayne Foundation, from which she receives a grant to conduct further research at Arkham Mental Hospital where several high profile Gotham villains including Joker are under lock and key. She neglects to mention (inappropriately but understandably since it would jeopardize her access) that she already once met the Joker on the street when she just happened to be a bystander on the scene of one of his chaotic crimes. In a brief encounter he pointed a gun in her face but didn’t pull the trigger. (“Maybe my gun was out of bullets,” he says with a grin when she asks him about it later.) She also neglects to mention that when Batman arrived at the scene of that same incident, she found herself caught up in the vengeful enthusiasm of the mob of onlookers as he violently subdued Joker – her shadow peeked out, in other words. The memory of this shakes her self-image and her confidence in her own nature.

She proceeds with her research even though Harvey Dent (not yet Two-Face) and other law enforcement professionals insist to her that the sociopaths in Arkham are irredeemable. Dent highly offends her by calling the criminals in there “animals” and monsters. (Joker nonetheless agrees with him: “In the end at least the cops are honest. They see us as monsters because we are just that.”) Joker is a master manipulator and even bribes a guard to get copies of Quinzel’s research so he can use it to his advantage with her. Quinzel is neither naïve nor a fool however. She is a highly capable shrink. She knows exactly what Joker is doing. His words get to her anyway because they speak to doubts she already has about herself. They induce her to recognize her own dark animalistic fantasies (and she uses the word “animal”). She herself grows desensitized in the fashion predicted by her thesis.

Importantly, Quinzel is not Joker’s victim. He may be a manipulator, but she consciously allows him to be one. Though conflicted about it, she chooses to let hidden aspects of herself surface and to engage in ever more inappropriate behavior, conventional morality and political correctness be damned. At every stage, she herself chooses to embrace her dark and wild side and, while she is at it, Joker. The final moment when she goes fully over the edge, however, is [not quite a SPOILER but nearly one, so stop reading if you wish] during a mass breakout from Arkham when in a moment of stress she kills to protect Joker. This isn’t quite a spoiler because it was foreshadowed in earlier narration about Dent and herself: “It’s kind of funny…All of our big words and moralizing and yet within five months we would both become murderers.”

For a graphic novel/comic book, this is an utterly impressive work. Thumbs Up.

Opeth - Harlequin Forest

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

“Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” – Ogden Nash

History can be written from almost any perspective. There are lengthy histories of rust, salt, cod, germs, weapons, and horses, among many other narrow topics. The better ones often contain remarkable insights into wider general history. One pleasant example that arrived in my mail recently is A Short History of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth. There are other more comprehensive histories of alcohol, but this is on drunkenness, which is a much more specific thing. In our ever more humorless society, some might take issue with Forsyth’s lighthearted tone even when discussing criminal or self-destructive behavior. For those who still can laugh at the human condition while nonetheless taking it seriously, however, the tone is just right.

Venus of Laussel
Humans consumed alcohol before they were, strictly speaking, human. Our great ape cousins love to get buzzed on overripe fruit, which naturally ferments to an alcohol content equal to beer. Our ancestors surely were no different. Modern humans used their bigger brains to learn how deliberately to ferment fruits and grains early in prehistory. The 25,000-year-old Venus of Laussel shows a woman knocking back a horn of something. A drinking horn is an inconvenient vessel for water. Historical peoples didn’t use horns for that, but until the past few centuries they were widely used for beer or wine. (You still can get one if you wish.) It’s a good bet the lady was tying one on. The Laussel folk and their contemporaries were at the mercy of the seasonal availability of fruits, honey, and grains in the wild however.

This suggests an answer to the mystery of why humans started farming. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle provides a healthier and more varied diet for less work. (Once farming is established it becomes a trap as anthropologist Jared Diamond has noted; the reasons for that are beside the point here where the question is why start at all.) Given that traces of alcohol are found on the very oldest shards of prehistoric pottery, one altogether serious hypothesis is that grains were planted and harvested in order to guarantee a steady supply of beer.

The oldest monumental stone construction site in the world is at Gobekli Tepe in present-day Turkey. It dates back to the end of the last ice age and, astonishingly, was built by nomad hunter-gatherers. There are 40-gallon (150-liter) stone tubs on the site with traces of oxalate, which is formed when you mix barley and water to ferment beer. The area was rich in wild grains at the time, but if you are going to erect a monumental stone beer hall for a Mesolithic Oktoberfest, you probably want to be doubly sure you can brew enough beer to serve all the clans who show up. “And so in about 9000 BC we invented farming because we wanted to get drunk on a regular basis.”

Prehistory being…well…prehistory, all that is speculative, but it is based on compelling if sparse evidence. Once we are in historical times there is no longer any doubt. One of the earliest Sumerian records, other than business contracts, is a poem of praise to Ankasi, goddess of beer, which includes a recipe for making it. Ancient Egyptians annually celebrated the Festival of Drunkenness (exactly what it sounds like) in honor of the goddess Hathor. Dionysus, god of wine in ancient Greece, had a dark side to him (as brilliantly depicted in Bacchae by Euripides), but was honored at symposia where wine literally made people philosophical. Forsyth notes the development of different fermenting and distillation processes over the centuries and the role of drunkenness (not just imbibition but getting sloshed) in history up until the current day. He describes what it was like to visit such various establishments as a Sumerian tavern, a medieval English alehouse, a frontier saloon, and a speakeasy.

Alcohol bans were attempted in many times and places – notably China and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica – but they never succeed as intended. The prohibition of alcohol in Russia (!) enacted by Nicholas II in 1914 might have done more to bring down the Empire (both from resentment and loss of revenue) than anything the Germans did in the field. The bizarre American era of Prohibition also gets its due mention in the book, as does the complicated response to alcohol in different Islamic countries.

Just as a side note (not mentioned by Forsyth), the 45 US Presidents (if you don’t count the 8 under the Articles of Confederation but do count Grover Cleveland twice according to convention) were for the most part a bibulous bunch. A few including Lincoln, Taft, and Carter were very light drinkers. A few including Jackson, Pierce (who died of cirrhosis), Harding, and Lyndon Johnson were hard drinkers. Truman started the day with a shot of bourbon. (So did my paternal grandfather as it happens.) The only teetotalers were Fillmore, Hayes, GW Bush, and Trump. Fillmore and Bush, however, drank heartily in their younger days. It is not clear there is any correlation between consumption levels and successful presidencies.

Dionysus retains his dark side, of course; alcohol abuse can be devastating to oneself and others. Yet, Dionysus, Hathor, and Ankasi aren’t going anywhere. Historically, respectable drunkenness has been a social affair to honor the gods, celebrate public events, or engage in bonding with friends. Solitary drunkenness on the other hand generally has been regarded with suspicion. As bars, pubs, and nightclubs shut down for the duration of the Covid-19 outbreak there is likely to be much more suspicious behavior. Unlike the buying frenzy one sees in aisles with toilet paper and cleaning products, however, the aisles in liquor stores so far seem calm. We’ll see if that changes as the shutdown drags on. 

George Thorogood and the  Destroyers – I Drink Alone

Saturday, March 14, 2020

All in All I Preferred Disco Fever – and I Hated Disco Fever

On this site I largely avoid overt discussion of news events or politics. There is a surfeit of sites that discuss (or more commonly rant about) little else, so my voice amid their din isn’t much missed. Besides, there is so much else about which to scribble – into which scribbles I then surreptitiously can insert my world views. Sometimes, however, a direct encounter with current events cannot be evaded. They might lasso you from the most unexpected direction. A lasso that snared me this week was tossed by E.R. Hamilton Bookseller.

Earlier this year I much enjoyed the mystery novel Icarus by South African author Deon Meyer (my brief review of it is in a February post) and decided to try something by him in another genre. This was before the border closings and the virally induced Wall Street panic of the past two weeks. I opted for his 2016 novel Fever. I never put much stock in synchronicity but Carl Jung soon had a chuckle anyway. From the brief catalogue description I knew only that Fever was a post-apocalyptic novel. (I wrote one of those myself.) It arrived in the mail and then lay on my desk for a while, but I opened it this past Monday specifically to divert myself from the news. What ends the-world-as-we-know-it in the book? The title gives a strong hint. An intensely rapidly spreading disease kills 95% of the population in a matter of months. The remaining 5% are immune, but the breakdown in civilization takes its toll on a large portion of them, too. What virus did all this? The narrator writes, “Corona viruses were quite common…In the mango tree there was a bat, with a different kind of corona virus in its blood.” Sigh.

The primary narrator (there are several others) in the novel is Nico Storm. He and his father Willem have survived the Fever and they try to re-establish a functioning community from other refugee survivors. Predatory gangs and internal divisions (politics never cease even amid an apocalypse) make it difficult. Furthermore, there are mysterious helicopters that are seen and heard on rare occasions, and they might be key to a deep secret. The characters learn that if there is anything more dangerous than humans who have shed the shackles of civilization and released their animal natures, it is civilized visionaries willing to use any means to achieve “good” ends. Thumbs Up on the book: the hate implied in the blog's title is for COVID-19.

In real life we have seen apocalyptic cults and societies who might well applaud outcomes like those in Fever, be they natural or manufactured. The doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, responsible for the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, actively worked to produce chemical and biological weapons to bring about the end. In the US the extreme pro-environment Church of Euthanasia doesn’t advocate homicide, but it does promote suicide. (Motto: “Save the Planet: Kill Yourself.”) According to the founder Reverend Chris Korda, “the four pillars of the Church of Euthanasia are suicide, abortion, cannibalism and sodomy. The Church only has one commandment: Thou Shall Not Procreate. All four pillars help reduce the population.” Korda adds, “We're only tangentially interested in the fate of the human species, but we're most interested in the fate of the planet we happen to inhabit and dominate... so our support of those pillars is both symbolic and actual.” The church’s website used to list painless methods of suicide, but, because of civil litigation concerns, these were removed.

1918 flu epidemic
Up until very modern times, diseases repeatedly knocked back the world’s population, sometimes drastically. In his classic work Plagues and Peoples historian William H. McNeill convincingly argued that pathogens determined the fate of empires more often than arms did. (Napoleon, for example, still might have had to retreat from Russia, but he would have done so with an intact army were it not for typhus.) In the last few centuries, however, better health and medical care broke populations free of the risk of large die-backs on ancient and medieval scales. The most devastating pandemic in relatively recent times was the 1918 influenza spread around the world by returning soldiers. It killed 650,000 people in the US and 50,000,000 worldwide. Yet even these vast tolls didn’t dent national and global population totals.

COVID-19 won’t dent them either. Nor is it on track to be anything like the ‘18 flu. I’ll still try to avoid making its personal acquaintance of course. As for synchronicity, the other book that arrived in the same package as Fever was A Short History of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth. Whether or not that foreshadows any events in my household, who is to say?

Devil Doll – Fever

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Unkindest Cut of All

Consider a murder mystery in which the motive is inheritance or insurance money. You’re probably thinking, “What, another one?” This is such a commonplace trope in novels, films, and TV that there is a page dedicated to it at (I toyed with an inheritance theme myself in my short story Cold Dishes.) It is an easy type of mystery for a writer to set up because a motive is self-evident and conflicts of interest among survivors are certain. Sometimes the script isn’t a mystery at all but rather a suspense drama: the audience wonders if the perpetrator (revealed in the early scenes) will get away with it. Columbo episodes are in this category. Double Indemnity (1944) set the big screen standard for the murder-for-insurance plot, and it is still hard to beat. Another subset of the genre is one in which multiple heirs to a fortune are all suspect when the matriarch/patriarch is murdered. Typically the soon-to-be-departed wealthy character has announced to the soon-to-be-suspects an intention to change the beneficiaries of a will or insurance policy; the murder occurs before the change can be made. There is usually a wild card, which is to say someone with a motive other than financial. Just a few among the multitude of productions of this type these are Another Thin Man (1939), Agatha Christie’s Murder, She Said (1961), and even an episode of Joss Whedon’s scifi series Dollhouse (“Haunted” 2009). The trope is so well-worn as to invite parody, but a surprisingly straight-up old-fashioned entry to the genre is 2019’s Knives Out, which spun up in my Blu-ray player a few days ago. It proved the concept still has legs when scripted well.

Knives Out has a stellar cast including Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Riki Lindhome, Ana de Armas, and Christopher Plummer. While the movie is not played for laughs, there is dark humor in the whodunit’s characters and situations. Premise: wealthy mystery writer Harlan Thrombey dies of an apparent suicide by self-inflicted knife wound the night of his 85th birthday party at which his disreputable family was present. The police are ready to dismiss the death as suicide, but private detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) has been anonymously hired (with an envelope of cash) to look into it. He has doubts.

The movie cost $40,000,000 to make (moderate by today’s standards), and most of that went to actors’ salaries. Otherwise it was modestly budgeted. It has earned over $300 million to date, showing that comic book superheroes in spandex immersed in insanely expensive fx are not essential for a commercially successful film. A good script alone still works. Only Once Upon a Time in Hollywood grossed more money in 2019.

Murders for insurance or inheritance are not so rare in real life as one might imagine – note 21 examples listed by JRC Insurance Group on its website. None of the schemes in that list display any sign of the intelligence typically shown by perpetrators in movies. Police were not fooled though it sometimes took time to assemble proof. (It is possible, of course, that intelligent schemers are not so much absent from real life as uncaught.) Occasionally, multimillion dollar estates are at stake as in the movies, but more commonly there is shockingly little money to be gained by the schemers. A local NJ murder case last year was over $10,000. (In a departure from the usual movie setting of a country mansion, Killer Joe [2011] with Matthew McConaughey and Juno Temple was set in a trailer park and depicted a more realistically tawdry murder plot for a paltry payout: a good movie but not for the puritanical or squeamish.) While the overall homicide rate in the US has dropped precipitously in the past 40 years, it is not clear that this particular type of cold-blooded murder has joined the decline – just something to consider before announcing an upcoming change in your will to your heirs.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Taking Stock

A horrific week on Wall Street prompted me to seek out diversions, especially in the hours before (or worse, instead of) sleep that otherwise were spent calculating losses. Bourbon was a tempting option but ultimately a counterproductive one, so I uncorked a few books instead. They were less cheering, but the mornings after were less painful – at least until trading started. If the reader of this post is similarly minded, here are five recent reads I can recommend for next week: one for each day of trading. Whatever happens next on the NYSE floor, all are worth a look.

**** ****

This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Princeton economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff

Published in 2009 (and read by me back then), this remains the definitive examination of the 2006-2008 crisis. I reopened the book last Tuesday. While that might seem to have been an exercise in masochism, there actually is some good news hidden in it. Crashes are unavoidable "equal opportunity crises" that will happen regardless of the political or economic system. "A financial system can collapse under the pressure of greed, politics, and profits no matter how well regulated it seems to be," Reinhart and Rogoff tell us, and they give an abundance of international and historical examples to prove it. What is the good news in that? It is that financial collapses, not market drops, are what do deep and lasting harm (as after 1929, 1987, and 2008) to economies. Not every stock market crash precedes a financial crisis. Many don’t. Even the particularly bad 2000 crash, for instance, while it hurt the tech sector, left banks largely unscathed so the effects were otherwise mild. Today the financial institutions are in better shape than in 2000. So, the economic threat is not structural, but literally viral. We’ve seen and gotten past viral scares before (e.g. SARS), though of course there are no guarantees things will play out the same way this time.

The 1987 and 2008 market drops were both preceded by a free fall in real estate prices, which exposed over-extended banks to bad mortgages. That is not a problem this year. Even were real estate to drop (so far it’s not happening) the banks are capitalized well enough this time to handle it. Real estate is a frequent source of past crises, by the way. As far back as 33 CE a Roman financial crisis began with a decline in real estate values. Lenders and investors (many of them senators) discovered their mortgages were larger than the underlying property values. Tacitus tells us “many were utterly ruined. The destruction of private wealth precipitated the fall of rank and reputation, until at last the emperor interposed his aid by distributing throughout the banks a hundred million sesterces.” The emperor Tiberius was a tyrannical old pervert but he was also a budget hawk who had filled up the Roman treasury, so he was able to bail out the financiers. The recovery was slow nonetheless. It is not even clear the bailout helped in a broader sense though it did ease panic. A similar crisis when Julius Caesar marched on Rome (Julius had no money to spare to bail out anyone) resolved itself in about the same time frame without intervention.

**** ****

Icarus by Leon Meyer

This is truly excellent South African crime fiction. Multiple storylines with multiple perspectives intertwine. The plot centers on the murder of a charming but amoral young entrepreneur Ernst Richter who had his fingers in everything from an internet alibi site for cheaters to counterfeit wines to blackmail. Richter’s alibi site provided false records (airline tickets, hotel bills, restaurant receipts, and so on) to clients in order to cover up their indiscretions in other locations. Recovering alcoholic detective Benny Griessel, a recurring character in Meyer’s novels, assists Vaughn Cupido in the murder investigation by Cape Town’s Priority Crimes unit. It is well that Griessel is not heading up this one, because he has fallen off the wagon after a close colleague committed a murder/suicide. He nonetheless does his part.

Many countries have ethnic divisions – sometimes deadly ones – but few are as fraught with complicated history as those in South Africa. Not even the USA comes close to matching the complexity of South Africa, which is saying a lot. Meyer navigates this cultural mix in very nuanced and human terms. “Human” is not always a compliment, but in this case it is.

**** ****

The Blood Countess by Andre Codrescu

Aside from Vlad Dracul, the 16th century Hungarian aristocrat Elizabeth Bathory is commonly cited as an inspiration for the modern version of the vampire myth. She was tried for murdering peasant girls: possibly several hundred, purportedly to bathe in their blood. The record of her trial still exists but at the time it was kept hush hush because the Bathory family had a claim to the throne and this scandal would have been hard to spin. Elizabeth was confined to a castle room as punishment.

Codrescu originally planned a straight-up history, but instead switched over to a horror novel, which was published in 1995. The story is narrated by a Bathory family descendant as a statement to a judge in 1990s New York. He claims his crime of murder is connected to Elizabeth and therefore he recounts her history.

The prose flows smoothly, the historical elements are well-researched, and the ambience of 1990s Hungary nicely evoked. This is not a vampire novel, though there are more than a few hints of the paranormal. It is mostly a historical drama depicting Elizabeth as an intelligent sadistic psychopath rather than a creature of the night. She is all the scarier for that.

**** ****

Forbidden Hollywood by Mark A. Vieira

One of the most interesting periods in film history is the pre-code era from 1930 to the middle of 1934. The Hays Production Code was a self-censorship code formulated by the film industry to head off government regulation. Though it existed in 1930, the studios didn’t start to enforce it strictly until 1934 when the threat of government intervention became more real. Every era generates its share of garbage, and this one is no exception, but when the pre-codes were good they were very good. The characters have complexity, moral ambiguity, and erotic lives that are very human (in a way often lacking in films today) in films such as Baby Face, Skyscraper Souls, Night Nurse, Red Dust (The New York Times reviewer said that the title was off by one letter), Waterloo Bridge (the harsh 1931 version, not the sentimental 1940 one), Scarface, and many many others. TCM has an excellent DVD collection of these films called Forbidden Hollywood and this is the companion book. It is a brief but serviceable history of the era and contains backstories on numerous films.

**** ****

Joker by Brian Azzarello

The first decade of the 21st century was a fine time for comics and graphic novels. Many of them were aimed solidly at adults. Marvel had the most successful decade, but DC had its moments. Brian Azzarello’s Joker came out the same year as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight movie with the iconic portrayal of the Joker by Heath Ledger. Azzarello’s Joker is very different but equally fascinating. Heath Ledger’s Joker is not actually crazy. He has thought about life, concluded that he is a nihilist, and embraced nihilism: witness his “agent of chaos” speech. Azzarello’s Joker, while intelligent in his own way, is not thoughtful. He is ruled by emotion: witness his “what I hate” speech. He is an impulsive solipsistic psychopath who terrifies everyone (including Penguin, Riddler, Dent, and Croc) except Harley Quinn. Harley, who apparently enjoys the danger of his company for reasons of her own, is not a major character in this comic but she is there. Fair warning: the comic is more graphically violent than one expects from DC.

Joker (which has nothing to do with the storyline of the 2019 movie of the same title) is narrated by the character Johnny Frost, a small time hoodlum. Frost decides to get ahead in the world of crime by tying his star to Joker's on the day Joker is released from Arkham Asylum. Accepted as Joker’s sidekick, Frost quickly realizes he is over his head, but he is unable to extricate himself as the mayhem mounts. Frost knows Joker does not tolerate betrayal. The comic implies that there is a way in which the various Jokers of page and screen connect: there may be multiple sequential Jokers, for Johnny (in a kind of Stockholm syndrome) seems ready to fill the character’s shoes before the story is done. Batman, who doesn’t appear until near the end of the comic, therefore will never defeat Joker. Another will take his place. It’s never possible entirely to defeat the dark impulses embodied by Joker. Batman (and we) can only continue the fight in hopes of limiting his influence.

Sammy Davis, Jr. – The Joker

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Mural Principles

“Something there is that doesn't love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost (Mending Wall), but that doesn’t keep us from (re)building them any more than it did Bob. My own property has no walls or fences (other than the ones integral to the buildings themselves, of course) designed as barriers to people. There is a retaining wall to keep earth from sliding and a three-rail fence to keep the deer away from the pool (both barriers are in need of maintenance this spring), but neither would pose much of an obstruction to a person. This is simply because, to date, no such deterrence to trespassers has been needed in my out-of-the-way location; my property doesn’t lie between any two places that anyone on foot is apt to go. Some nearby neighbors, though equally out-of-the-way, opt for border walls and fences anyway. Perhaps my immediate neighbors will someday be inspired to do the same. Then I’d have an enclosure on three sides without having to lay a brick or dig a post hole of my own. I can live with that.

Boundary walls have a history as old as civilization. Walls: a History of Civilization in Blood and Brick by David Frye makes just this point. It arrived from Amazon last week. History can be written profitably with a focus any one component of civilization, no matter how large or small. I have read and been impressed by histories of rust, salt, germs, and even cod. Frye’s book on walls is a fine addition to them.

Walls are designed to keep something/someone out or something/someone in. (Frost again: “Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out.”) Occasionally they are intended to do both. More commonly, though, they are just for one or the other, and most commonly of all they are to keep outsiders out. The need for them appeared as soon as ancient peoples settled down and built up static stores of food and goods; these were tempting targets for nomad raiders – and also for settled but covetous neighbors. Plundering someone else’s wealth was a pleasant activity – far more pleasant than laboring for it oneself – and so it was a difficult practice to stop. Defensive walls accordingly sprang up around the first cities. Walls have been with us ever since. They come in all types and sizes: frontier walls, city walls, neighborhood walls (aka “gated communities”), and walls around private estates. In general, the less effective the distant walls are, the more numerous the nearer ones will be.

Ancient frontier walls were built remarkably early. They turn up in what was still technically prehistory. When we think of frontier walls the Great Wall of China naturally springs to mind. Over millennia it was built and rebuilt: most impressively by the Ming, the last dynasty under which it served a real defensive purpose. Yet, while the Great Wall is exceptional by scale and by the persistence with which it was reconstructed, it was in other respects not alone and it was far from the first. In Syria, for example, there is a mysterious 100-mile wall more than 4000 years old running roughly north-south. Since writing was still a new idea that hadn’t yet spread to Syria, there are no descriptions of it from contemporary sources and no inscriptions on it. So, who built it and why are unknown. One can make surmises. Like most ancient frontier walls it separated the settled area of farms and cities (in this case to the west) from the unsettled realm of nomads (pastoralists and hunter-gatherers mostly) on the other side. Scarcely more than a meter tall, it wasn’t a very formidable barrier, though it would have presented an obstacle to war chariots, the Abrams tanks of the day. Chariots were among the weapons of the nomads at the time; pure cavalry, sans chariots, was half a century in the future. If defended, it at least would have slowed attackers on foot, too. A few centuries later, Shulgi of Ur built a long frontier wall across the desert “like a net.” The Sumerians did have writing so we have a record of Shulgi bragging about the accomplishment. The purpose was to block the raids of nomadic Amorites to the north. Later, for similar reasons, the Persians built walls against the horsemen of the northern steppes. (Fate being the prankster that she is, Persia eventually fell to horsemen from the south.) The Romans were inveterate wall builders as well. Hadrian’s Wall is most famous, but hundreds of miles of other walls defended the Empire against barbarians from unoccupied Germany (we often forget just how much of Germany Rome held), the Balkans, Syria, and even North Africa. In modern times the Maginot line, a frontier wall of sorts, is often derided because Germans bypassed it. Yet, the line forced the Germans to bypass it, so to that extent it worked. Had the Maginot line extended to the sea, 1940 might have been very different. Expanding empires, one might note, don’t bother much with walls. Border walls are commonly a signal that imperial expansion is over, and that emphasis has switched to holding ground against loss.

City walls were a second (sometimes only) line of defense in ancient times. They could be defeated by a determined and capable besieger, but more often than not they were effective. City walls left the surrounding countryside exposed to raiders, true enough, but at least the towns had protection. From Sumerian times to the end of the Middle Ages, well-defended walls were tough to beat. The Long Walls connecting Athens to the port of Piraeus made the Athenian rise to power possible by thwarting (for a time) Sparta’s more powerful army. For months the walls of Tyre held up Alexander the Great: not a fellow to be easily held up. Repeatedly over centuries the walls of Constantinople saved the Byzantine Empire from invaders. At long last, however, those walls were reduced to ruins by the cannonades of Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453. Orban, the Hungarian metals expert who cast the massive cannons, had offered his expertise to both sides, but Mehmed made the better offer. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be stingy.

Some walls are built to keep people in rather than out: prison walls are the most obvious example. During the Cold War we saw the curious case of border walls – the Berlin wall most prominently – designed primarily to keep the population inside from leaving: a reversal of border walls’ usual function. Most walls and border fences today serve the old-fashioned exclusionary purpose. They often are controversial nonetheless, whether on the West Bank, the southern flank of Hungary, or the US southern border. Those inside at least are still free to leave, however.

Here at home, I’ll soon dig out my masonry tools from the garage for my wall repairs this spring. Once again, my own masonry walls at present merely keep back dirt from where I don’t want it. Hopefully, the need for anything more won’t ever arise. One never can be altogether certain about such things though. Fate is still a prankster.

Johnny Cash – The Wall