Those Madcap Russians!

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Title: The Government Inspector

Rating: 3 Stars

The Government Inspector is an adaptation of a play by Gogol.

A completely corrupt mayor receives a note that a government inspector is coming to his town to visit. In a panic, all of his cronies gather to determine what to do. There is the judge that takes bribes for convictions. There is the hospital director that has overseen the construction of a useless hospital. There is the school principal who has built a number of gymnasiums but very few classrooms. And there is the postmaster, who thinks nothing of opening everyone’s mail.

As they discuss how to best present themselves to the inspector, two men (Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky), apparently twins (but not really), burst in to tell them that the inspector is already in town. The mayor and all of his cronies immediately set out to meet the inspector and try to conceal their corruption from him.

It’s a case of mistaken identity. In fact, the man (Khlestakov) that is mistaken for the government inspector is actually an unscrupulous conman that has lost all of his money and is preparing to kill himself.

When the officials burst in on Khlestakov, there is confusion on both sides. The officials are trying to determine if Khlestakov is susceptible to bribes while Khlestakov is trying to determine if they are there to arrest him for crimes that he’s committed.

Ultimately, much to Khlestakov’s relief, before he confesses he understands that they are trying to bribe him. From then on, he leads the officials on a merry journey of bribery, drunkenness, and seduction. The mayor’s wife, desperately lonely, throws herself at Khlestakov while the mayor, thinking that Khlestakov is a great match, is setting him up with his daughter.

It’s all a merry madcap of tomfoolery and confusion. By the end of the play, Khlestakov has taken off with all of their money and the officials now have to deal with the real government inspector, who had been infiltrated with them all along.

This play is reminiscent of Scapin and Comedy of Errors. It’s fascinating to me the universal nature of comedy. You have the 19th century Russian, the 17th century Frenchman, and the 16th century Englishman all writing plays that could easily have served as Beverly Hillbillies plots.

This is interesting to me because I’m re-reading Nesteroff’s history of comedians. One of his theses is that comedy does have a shelf life. Comedians funny to one generation are lost to the next. This is true of even the greats. Even though his show is still in syndication and he’s an acknowledged greatly skilled comedian, no one goes to Jerry Seinfeld for new comedy. He still tours and still does new material, but even so the people that attend do so primarily for nostalgic reasons. Plays seem to have a different shelf life than the more immediate art of the comedian.

In the world of plays, there seem to be plays / themes in the comedic world that are timeless. For instance, the Government Inspector hits on several themes that are not out of place even now:

  • Corrupt venal politicians
  • Mistaken identity
  • The smart employee getting the better of her employer
  • The rustic provincial

Speaking of Seinfeld, one tenet of his show was that would be no hugs, no tears, and no learning. His characters go through life, getting caught up in all kinds of situations, and it leaves them fundamentally unchanged. The same is here in this play. There is no true love romantic plot. There is no moral lesson. There are no sympathetic characters. There is not even a protagonist. It is a pure satire.

This is also a play that probably would not be a successful movie. The characters are too thin and predictable. It is as if you need to have live actors selling the action to a live audience to really make it work. If I wasn’t watching this with an audience rollicking with laughter, I wouldn’t have had nearly the same amount of enjoyment.

As with all such madcap, frenetic hi-jinks, the play starts off on fire but eventually runs out of steam. The pace of such a play can only be sustained for so long. There are a couple of hallucinogenic sequences that were completely over the top and altered the mood of the play for the worse.

I did enjoy the fact that as we walked out, they were playing a Gogol Bordello song.

A Visually Stunning Ozymandias

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Title: Blade Runner 2049

Rating: 3 Stars

First, the good stuff. Blade Runner 2049 is visually stunning. I knew that this was the last weekend that it’d be playing at the Cinerama, which has the largest screen outside of IMAX around here.

I was not disappointed. The West Coast in the year 2049 is a ruined wreck. Los Angeles extends its squalid buildings for all the eye to see. San Diego, now a dump, is completely engulfed by mountains of garbage, with ever more pouring in. Flashy Las Vegas is now a contaminated dead zone, with shattered remnants of hotels, casinos, skyscrapers, and statues defiantly thrusting themselves up through the wasteland.

At ground level, there is no sun to be found. The city is always overcast and wet. Outside the city, all is barren and gritty in what appears to be a perpetual sandstorm.

Clearly some ecological disaster has occurred here. Despite the film taking place thirty years after the original Blade runner (which itself is interesting, we’re just two years away from 2019, where’s my fucking replicant?), clearly society is still kind of just hanging on here on Earth. This is very much a dystopian future.

Apparently, the new creators of the replicants tried to learn their lessons from their antecedents. The latest generation of replicants are designed to be obedient. The new blade runner, K (Ryan Gosling) is himself a replicant. As a replicant, his job is to retire older model replicants.

In so doing, he discovers a box full of bones. The bones are identified as being female and of having died in childbirth. What makes this a shocking discovery is that the female is proven to be a replicant.  Replicants are not designed to be able to become pregnant, so if this turns out to be true, then this could cause a revolution if not a war between replicants and humans. Replicants are essentially treated as slaves. The ability to give birth would give them the notion of having a soul.

K is given the orders to hunt down the child (if alive) and kill it. As he investigates he discovers that the dead woman is actually Rachael, the replicant from the original Blade Runner film that Deckard (Harrison Ford) falls in love with and eventually runs away with.

K then tracks down Deckard as part of his efforts to find the child. From here on out, spoilers abound, so watch the film yourself if you really want to see how it ends.

I guess the first question that comes to mind is, why was this film made (other than obvious profit motives)?

To me, what made the first Blade Runner so successful was the ambiguous behavior of the replicants vs the humans. The humans are all pretty much beat up and tired. On the other hand, Roy (Rutger Hauer) is vital and alive. In this dark world, it’s the replicants that are the most human. From characters like Roy, you can also see the desperate yearning to be human. They are so close yet they understand that they’re missing some fundamental essence that they’ll never have.

Here, K knows that he’s a replicant. He’s under no illusion. He blindly obeys his superior officer. It is only after it becomes clear that he might actually be Rachael’s long lost child that he begins to rebel. To the replicants being born implies the concept of a soul. The fact that he might actually possess a soul inspires him to behavior that he would normally never contemplate.

Also interesting is his relationship with his VR live in girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas). Their relationship is doubly synthetic. He’s a replicant and she is simply a VR illusion of a woman. Yet, even so, their relationship acquires a poignancy.

The film, as in the original, calls into question the nature of reality and of humanity. Does a natural born human possess a different essence than a bio-engineered human? Do natural born humans take our gift for granted and squander it?

So, why only three stars? First of all, I’m not sure if the philosophy of Blade Runner is really advanced that much in Blade Runner 2049. It still seems to be addressing the same questions and providing the same ambiguous answers.

The pace was, to say the least, languid. Clocking in at 2 1/2 hours, it could have been a much tighter movie. This seemed to be one of those films where they discovered so many cool effects that they just couldn’t help themselves and jammed them all in, even if not necessary for the story.

One of the drivers of the plot was Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who is some genius who saved humanity from famine and has taken over development of the replicants. He needs to figure out to make replicants reproduce so that he can meet the future demands. Neither the character nor this plot was interesting or compelling.

And yes, women don’t fare too well in this movie. A number are murdered, another is a prostitute, another is a VR fantasy, and yet another is your standard female high kick murdering henchwoman. The VR Joi plays into the fantasy that somehow a fake perfect woman is better than a real woman with all of her complexities.

If they’d trimmed even 20 minutes out of the movie, it’d have been a much tighter movie.

Horror for Creepers

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Title: It

Rating: 2 Stars

And to be honest, it’s a generous two stars. I give out relatively few 1 stars (probably less than 5 over the last couple of years). It has to be boringly bad at an almost infuriating level for me to give it a 1.

So, it’s not that bad. Or should I say It’s not that bad? Which leads me to comment number one. Who the fuck calls a monster It? Do you not know how the English language works? Every time, you have to check the capitalization of the word ‘it’ to determine if King’s referring to the monster or is just using the innocent pronoun. If ‘it’ happens to be the first word in the sentence, you’re kind of fucked.

I watched the film about a month ago or so. I found the film problematic, primarily because you have to fit in seven character’s plot arcs in a two hour movie. There is just no way that that can be done successfully in such a short period of time, so there were times when I got confused about which character is actually involved (the asthmatic one? the mouthy one? the fat one?).

I figured that the novel has to be way better. The canvas is so much more broader and King, who as we all know isn’t big on succinctness, will have the time and space to tell all of his characters’ stories. It (arrggghhh!!) is over 1000 pages, so this shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Still a problem. The main characters are still, at the end of the day, pretty generic kids. The kids’ names are (let’s see if I can do this from memory): Bill, Ed, Mike, Ben, Bev, Stan, and Richie. They are, respectively, the stutterer, the hypochondriac, the black kid, the fat kid, the girl, the Jewish kid and the mouthy kid. And that’s kind of how they’re known. They have one character trait that differentiates them. Even Bev, the girl, is basically just one of the boys. Bill has the most character development, being the main protagonist, but still, pretty generic. Even after reading many hundreds of pages, when one of the characters was called out, I’d have to take a second and think, OK, this is Ben, he’s the fat one, OK, got it.

Each character had several episodes that you had to wade through, both as children and as adults. It’s still too many characters to care about and I stopped caring midway through the book.

So, what’s the thing about clowns? It’s never explained. It (dammit!) can manifest itself (…sigh…) into any shape (aiming for those shapes that terrify, It seemingly feeds on fear).  For some reason, across history, It inevitably manifests itself as a clown (there are old pictures / stories about a strange clown hanging around the periphery during times of violence and horror). Clowns haven’t been scary throughout all time have they? Why does It keep coming back to it?

And in battles when they first wound …sigh…It and then later, as adults, when they kill …It, it (the pronoun, not the monster) becomes some weird end of 2001 Space Odyssey trip to infinity and back. Apparently there’s some superior force of creation that’s an impossibly ancient yet somehow wise tortoise that exists in opposition to It and the two have some kind of ying-yang relationship but then when the kids come back as adults the tortoise might be dead but there might be an even larger creative force beyond even the tortoise serving as perhaps the least impressive god-like force ever. The book was published in 1987. Those of us who were alive and conscious during that time remember Joseph Campbell and all of his philosophizing on myths. It appears that King took Campbell’s ideas, word scrambled them, and served them up fresh.

And finally, these seven kids are all around eleven years old. Beverly, the girl, is 11 years old.  Eleven years old. Not even a teenager. King, in several places, writes about her body in what can only be described as in an uncomfortably sexual manner. I’m not talking about the feelings that she’s developing or anything like. No, he writes about her fresh skin, luxurious hair, long legs, and budding breasts. It’s frankly uncomfortable. And then there’s the subplot where her father, although not overtly sexually abusing her (at least until he gets possessed by…yes…It), is clearly having impure thoughts about his daughter. Not to mention the fact that, key to the plot (and I apologize if this is a spoiler, but it’s a thirty year old novel), she pulls a fucking train with all of the eleven year old boys. Seriously, WTF? They gather their collective power to fight It by grasping hands in a circle. OK, fine, but then they get lost in the tunnels and she decides that the only way to really bring all of the power is to have an orgy with her fellow eleven year old friends? My life was certainly improved by the description of an eleven year old girl’s orgasm.

For some reason, the movie version somehow decided to bypass this little scene.

I’m not a Stephen King hater. I’ve read many of his novels and have enjoyed them (I remember being particularly creeped out by Pet Semetary). Clearly he has writing chops and can tell a story. But lordy, It (fuck!) was a book that was both boring and creepy.

Beware The Quiet Ones

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Title: Eileen

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a grim tale indeed. It’s the story of Eileen Dunlop, a severely depressed and repressed young woman that works at a boy’s prison in New England in 1964.

Her mother has passed away. Her father, an ex-cop, is a hopeless alcoholic completely reliant upon Eileen but also torments her. She has a vivacious older sister named Joanie that her father clearly prefers (with just a hint of maybe caring for her a little too much when she was younger), but wisely chooses to seldom visit the depressing, messy home.

Barely wanting to acknowledge her femininity, she dresses in her deceased mother’s dowdy clothes and tries to act as sexless as possible. Also vaguely horrified by bodily functions, she barely eats and periodically takes massive doses of laxatives to purge her body all at once.

Her job at the boy’s prison, Moorehead, isn’t much better. The other two ladies at the office treat her with disdain. She pretends indifference by always arranging her facial features in what she refers to as a ‘death mask’.

Her sole enjoyment is vaguely romantic fantasies of a prison guard named Randy. This extends to even outside work hours when she drives over and parks her car in front of his house to watch him.

She dreams of escape but at some level she understands that she never will.

One day, into this dull dreary life sweeps in a prison counselor named Rebecca. She is glamorous and dazzling and amazingly enough, takes a liking to Eileen. Eileen, stunned, really having no idea of how to make / keep a friend, let alone someone like Rebecca, just flails and desperately tries to make herself liked.

They form a bond and Eileen’s life begins to start looking up. Ultimately, Rebecca ends up putting Eileen in a situation that she could never imagine. Eileen will have to make choices that will forever change her life.

A couple of things. Even though it’s not a conventional one, it seemed to have a very noir essence to it. In this case, instead of the hapless man, it’s Eileen that allows herself to get caught into a spiderweb of a woman’s devising. As I was reading it, it reminded me of something that James M. Cain would have written.

It takes guts for an author to use Eileen as her protagonist. It’s even told in Eileen’s first person perspective. Eileen is one of the most unattractive protagonists that I’ve met. She’s unhappy, repressed, depressed, and a source of unhappiness in others. There is really not even a trace of human kindness in her. To put a character like that front and center in your novel and pretty much just daring your reader to like and/or empathize with her was a pretty bold move.

It paid off for me. I enjoyed it.

The Madness of Kings

This is the second blog post that I’ve written titled The Madness of Kings. The first was about The Winter’s Tale, a Shakespearean play that I watched in Ashland. This has nothing do with that. So sue me.

This is literally about the madness of kings. What do you do when your king, the literal embodiment of the state, is mad?

I first started thinking about this while reading Tuchman’s book, A Distant Mirror, a fantastic history of the 14th century.

One of the key figures in it is the French king, Charles VI. After he took over from his corrupt uncles, he instituted reforms that led him to be known as Charles the Beloved. Later he came to be known as Charles the Mad.

At one point, during an expedition, he fell into a fit of madness, grabbed his lance, and started wildly swinging. This started off a mad scramble as his courtiers tried to calm him down but not actually touch him (since touching a king was a death sentence). Finally, he was effectively tackled and restrained, but not before killing four knights.

It didn’t help his madness later when he was at a costume party, attired in linen soaked in wax and someone (actually his brother, I believe) lit his costume on fire with a torch.

For the rest of his reign (and yes, he ruled for over 40 years), he had intermittent fits of madness. This came during a time when the Turks invaded Europe. It was decided that all of the European Christian states needed to get together to fight off this menace. Charles VI, as the King of France, was a key leader in this alliance because France was considered the military arm of Christianity.  Wenceslas IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, was considered the temporal head of Christianity.

Together, they gathered to discuss how to meet this existential threat to the Christian states. Wenceslas was alcoholic, so unfortunately, during the rare moments when Charles was sane, Wenceslas was drunk, and during the rare moments when Wenceslas was sober, Charles was mad, so the Christian states were not able to mount an organized opposition to the Turks, so they continued their attacks on Europe.

There was also the madness of King George III, of England. He started his reign in 1760. He reigned for 60 years. For the last ten years, he was completely mad and a regency was created so that his son could rule in his stead.

Long lives seem to be a problem for kings. How do you depose a beloved, successful king that has gone mad in his final years? Another case in point is Edward III, another king of England. He led the most victorious part (at least from an English point of view) of the Hundred Years’ War and was actually crowned King of France.

Ultimately, he reigned for fifty years. The last couple of years, he was senile and incontinent, apparently going around in a diaper. His son, the Black Prince, had died by this time, so next in line was his ten year grandchild. England was rudderless during this time and lost many of its gains from the war.

I could go on. How about Ivan the Terrible, who in a fit of insane rage killed his son? How about Eric XIV of Sweden, who in his paranoia ordered a family murdered, was later deposed, imprisoned, and poisoned in his jail cell?

All of this brings up interesting thoughts in my mind. When your leader is mad, what impact does that actually have on the people? Kings have a lot of power and are representative of their state. However, kings are surrounded by courtiers and the bureaucracy of state. Does this bureaucracy insulate the people from the madness? Can the state survive the madness of its king? How much does a state suffer from it? Does it, like an organic body, protect itself by enclosing the madness in some defensive bureaucratic membrane?

If you’re wondering why I’m thinking of this, of course this has been inspired by recent thoughts on Donald Trump. I read a fairly chilling article regarding Rex Tillerson and the actual growing prospect of nuclear war with North Korea. I read about John Kelly, trying to set up a protective cordon around President Trump to limit those he comes into contact with. I read about apparent conversations that have been conducted involving Defense Secretary James Mattis regarding what should be done if President Trump actually in fact orders a nuclear attack (apparently James Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense during Nixon’s final days, issued orders to military commanders not to launch any attacks without his prior approval). I read about briefings prepared for him that regularly include his name throughout to trick him into reading it. I think about the last minute cancellation of President Trump in a potential hostile 60 Minutes interview because of concerns that he’s ‘lost a step’.

Finally, I’m thinking about the recent spate of articles regarding the 25th amendment and the byzantine process it takes to involuntarily removing a president. It involves basically a revolt of half of the cabinet and two thirds of both the House and the Senate.

If Trump is truly incapacitated, can we as a nation (let alone the world) actually be protected by people that serve solely at his convenience? If he appears to becoming truly unstable, is it feasible that his hand picked cabinet and a Republican controlled House and Senate actually agree to vote him out? Remember that for those of us who see a potentially dangerously unstable man, he still has a 75 percent approval rating among the Republican party faithful. At what point will politicians place country over party? In today’s hyper partisan environment, is that even a possibility? How bad will it have to get?

These are increasingly scary days.

Charming Rogue Death Dealer

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Title: American Made

Rating: 2 Stars

American Made is about Barry Seal, a drug smuggler turned DEA informant ultimately murdered by the Medellin Cartel.

I’m not going to spend too much time actually talking about the movie. It was pretty pedestrian. Tom Cruise has gotten to the point where it appears that all he can do is be Tom Cruise. He’s at the point in his career where he’s basically happy being a caricature of himself.

Actors seem to end up in that situation. This is not a knock on Cruise because many actors much more greatly respected than him end up there as well (ahem…Al Pacino or Robert De Niro).

The story is your classic American rogue’s tale. As he’s importing tons of drugs in exchange for arming drug lords, you’re just supposed to just chuck him on the chin and say, that’s all right, you’re a decent boy at heart.

The film takes many liberties with Seal’s tale. It appears that they’ve taken every even scant rumor about him and thrown it into the film as fact. It has him getting recruited by the CIA while flying for TWA. It has him arming the Contras. Realizing that the Contras have no interest in the guns, he turns around and actually arms the Medellin cartel, whose cocaine he takes and brings to the US. In the middle of all this, he somehow ends up also bribing Noriega on the CIA’s behalf and setting up the Sandinistas in a drug sting (a plot apparently hatched by Oliver North). His name leaks from the drug sting, which leads the Medellin cartel to put out the hit on him.

Now, I don’t know what the truth of Seal is. In broad outlines, it does pretty accurately describe our meddling in Central America. The Reagan administration is terrified after the Sandinista revolution takes over Nicaragua. As Nicaragua goes, so goes the rest of Central America, with the ultimate domino being Mexico, which of course means that the Reds are now at our back door!

I’m really not exaggerating. In retrospect, it seems like the Cold War was some insane Kubrick bitter satire, but that was the reality. I was there. People legitimately thought that the desperately poor overthrowing their rich land owners in a tiny, impoverished Central American country was an existential threat to the United States.

Since this was taking place in ‘our’ hemisphere, this could not stand (kind of a reversed fucked up Monroe Doctrine). So, even if the movie threw way too much plot into Barry Seal’s life, it is certainly true that the President tried to arm the Contras to overthrow the Sandinistas, despite explicit direction from Congress not to provide any material to them (you know, the arm of our government that is supposed to control the purse strings). We did basically treat Noriega as a puppet, despite his known corruption.

Most shamefully, there is strong evidence that the CIA actually did aid drug running into the country as another means to fund the Contras and thus accidentally if not actively fostering the crack cocaine epidemic.

And, of course, the coup de grace, the administration that promised never to negotiate with terrorists proceeded to sell arms to Iran so that it could use its influence to free hostages in Beirut. The proceeds from the arms sales went to, …yes, the Contras.

All of those illegal deals, millions if not billions of dollars, immoral acts, and the loss of basically a generation of inner city youth to crack resulted in…the Contras being hounded out of Nicaragua and being forced to hide out in Honduras.

I’ve written about all of this now a couple of times (search for Iran or Contra and you’ll find it). I’m slightly obsessed with it because this was, in my lifetime, the clearest example of the American government just doing outright evil things with obvious grounds for impeachment. In addition, I’m not a tinfoil hat guy and generally speaking, large organizations (and you don’t get much larger than the American government) are way more likely to be incompetent than evil, but here was a case where a small cadre of people actually launched an absolutely bat shit insane conspiracy and got caught, so sometimes the tinfoil guys are right (which of course feeds them into even deeper conspiracies; to see this in action please check out exhibit A: The Octopus and Danny Casolaro).

So, I’m guessing that this was probably done intentionally, but all of this was basically glossed over in the film as some aw shucks good guy going about and doing these absolutely immoral things.

Was this film making a statement that America is so full of its self image as this beacon of goodness, freedom, and liberty that it literally does not have the self awareness of the consequences of its action? Is Tom Cruise, that eternally youthful movie star with the glamorous smile and twinkle in his eye, actually America itself?

Slouching Towards Sparta

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Title: How Everything Became The War And The Military Became Everything

Rating: 2 Stars

In my life, the United States military has changed tremendously. I came of age in the 1970s, during the worse of Vietnam and in its aftermath. I know that there are stories about people spitting on returning soldiers, calling them baby killers, etc. I was pretty young and it was a long time ago, so I don’t know how much truth there was to this and/or how common of a practice it really was.

Be that as it may, the image of the army by the end of the Vietnam War was an army of poor conscripts (the wealthy can always figure out how to get out of military service, from paying $300 to get out of the Civil War to getting medical deferments during the Vietnam War (how’s that heel spur, President Trump?)) composed of drug addicts that occasionally tried to frag their officers.

Of course, nowadays, it’s an all volunteer force (still comprised mostly of people of limited economic means, some things never change). Especially in the time of Reagan, in opposition to those flag burning liberals, Americans began to lionize military personnel. We now thank soldiers for their service and they are given great respect. Even the most flaming anti-war zealot will always make a point to say that they support the soldiers.

Lord help the politician who in any way seems to be weak on defense. In the year 2017, our defense budget is about $700 billion dollars, even though we have no real state enemies of any consequence, we have no border threats, and we are under absolutely no existential threat (I’m sorry, but the United States will not be handing over a ceremonial sword in surrender to ISIS anytime soon). Meanwhile, the State Department budget (you know, the guys that actually manage our affairs of state) is about $55 billion dollars.

How did we get here? That is the subject of the book.

First of all, we’ve been at war essentially non-stop for over fifteen years. That’s the problem with declaring a war on a noun (ie War on Terror). When does it end? Are we expecting Terror to surrender? If we quit fighting while acts of terror still occur (and let’s face it, they’re always going to be occurring, there is no other way to fight the world’s only superpower than asymmetrically), does that mean that we have given up and/or surrendered? What politician has the cojones to say that?

War itself has changed. In the olden times, two masses of men (yes, men) lined up and charged each other. Now, war can be economic. War can be cyber. War can be personalized (think of a predator drone hovering above a terrorist suspect, gathering enough information to provide a convincing case that he is indeed a terrorist, and then sending a missile to destroy only his house). Now, instead of making sure that we have the best ships, tanks, and planes, billions of dollars are invested in these traditionally non military activities.

We also now have the concept of Counter Insurgency (COIN). This is basically a newer version of winning the hearts and minds. If we can figure out how to improve the standard of living of people that could nominally becomes our enemies, than maybe they will be less likely to become our enemies. Maybe they can even become a bulwark against those that truly are our enemies. So, in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, more billions of dollars are spent building schools, hospitals, wells and the like, all done by the, you guessed it, military.

The final nail in the coffin is that budgets really are, to a certain extent, a zero sum game. It’s not completely true, but generally it’s true that every dollar that goes to defense means that someone else is losing a dollar.

The implication to this is that even if a function falls outside of the military normal duties, it devolves to the military because the normal department doesn’t have the money to do it any longer. The military has the budget and the manpower, so it, reluctantly, takes it on. For example, in some countries, it’s the military that runs a local radio station. From a COIN point of view, it’s a good tactic to have a medium to communicate locally. Historically, it’s the State Department that would perform this, but it has become so financially emasculated that the defense has picked up the function. Neither State nor Defense particularly like this, but it needs to be done and only the Defense Department has the capability to perform it.

What’s wrong with all of this, anyway? Well, the military is basically a hammer and to it, every problem looks like a nail. I’m not in any way knocking the troops (I support the troops! Thank you for your service!), but there are problems in the world that aren’t necessarily best solved by a strictly hierarchical, rigidly disciplined, gun toting group of men (OK, eighty-five percent men).

By constant war, scope creep, pouring funds to it while depriving others, the military has become the dominant government power in the United States. The impact that this has on a traditional Western democracy is something that should be and needs to be looked on with deep suspicion.

So, after all of this blather, why two stars? Well, there are five parts to this book. What I just described takes place in the first two. The author is a lawyer, and in the latter parts of the book, this shows. She goes on, at length, on the subject of the history of war and attempts made to wrap around it a legal framework. It was kind of interesting, but to me, not really all that germane to the urgent topic at hand. I felt that entire sections of the book were filler. It could have made a more powerful, cogent argument in half the length. Also, there was a bit of a travelogue element to it (Look, I went to Iraq! Look, I went to Afghanistan! Look, I went to Guantanamo!) that, again, detracted from the main argument.

Still Don’t Want To Relive The ’70s

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Title: Battle of the Sexes

Rating: 4 Stars

It’s interesting when a film covers events that I distinctly remember from my childhood. It forces me to look at events with fresh eyes. This film is about the so called battle of the sexes, in which a 55 year old Bobby Riggs took on 29 year old Billie Jean King in a $100,000 winner take all match.

Bobby Riggs had previously beaten Margaret Court rather handily, but it was generally accepted that Billie Jean King was the best woman’s player, so even though this was just an exhibition, there was a tremendous amount of hoopla over it.

The film did a good job describing the atmosphere and building up to the climatic match. It also covered King’s awakening sexuality in a sensitive manner.

From what I remember from 1973, when I was 10 years old, there were a large number of people actively rooting for Bobby Riggs. There was a general feeling that women should  know their role, stick to it, and be appreciative for the morsels that they were given. Those ‘women libbers’ might have had a point when they started but now they’ve gone too far. Why should they demand equal pay when everyone knows that men are the breadwinners?

Obviously there are people who still think that today but in the 1970s it was blatantly overt and mainstream. It wasn’t unusual on the television for some self satisfied old white guy to sanctimoniously give advice to girls about their place. Looking back, I can only imagine how much that steamed those women looking for more than just life outside of the kitchen and the bedroom.

In hindsight, it seems kind of insane that somehow the establishment decided to put itself behind Riggs, an, even at that time, known gambler, self-promoter, and hustler, in contrast to the hardworking and earnest King. His character fits the rogue narrative that main stream America mostly just chuckles at and lovingly calls a knucklehead. Barnum would have been proud.

This was the same time when Title IX passed, which mandated that women should have equal access to participating in college sports. Before it passed, one percent of college athletic budgets went to women. Athletic scholarships were given exclusively to men.

I remember when it passed. There was much gnashing of teeth. Who would want to see a woman play sports? There’s no money to be made with women’s sports! It was taking money from deserving men! Women don’t really even want to play sports, right?

Interesting enough, this happened during Nixon’s second term. Even though he probably wasn’t in love with it, he directed the executive branch to execute it, and to their credit, they did. Can you imagine a Republican administration in today’s climate doing this?

In fact, I’m surprised that Title IX hasn’t been targeted yet. There seems to be a movement that thinks that somehow making America great again involves removing hard won equal rights from those that previously were lacking them. (otherwise known as ‘special rights’).

All of this backdrop makes the film’s message all that much more important. The battle was won (OK, maybe not won but substantial progress was made) but the war is not over.

 

This film is an example of how to make an engaging film that also has an important message. In this case, the message is equality and acceptance. In the year 2017, it’s pretty sad that this message is still important to champion, but it definitely is, so kudos to the film for making it.

Holy Mother

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Title: mother!

Rating: 4 Stars

Um…wow.

mother! starts off pretty conventionally. You have a older successful writer (Javier Bardem) (actually a poet) and his young wife (Jennifer Lawrence). The house they have been living in has burned down and the wife is slowly but surely restoring it to its original glory. Meanwhile, the poet is trying to write again but has been blocked, apparently for some time.

An unexpected visitor (Ed Harris) drops in. The wife is clearly discomforted by his appearance, but her husband encourages him to stay. The next day the visitor’s wife turns up (Michelle Pfeiffer). The visitor admits to the poet that he’s dying and that he intentionally dropped in on the poet to pay his respects. Meanwhile, the visitor’s wife intrudes upon the poet’s wife and generally makes a mess in the house.

Later the younger and older sons of the visitor show up. The younger son is infuriated with his planned inheritance, and in the ensuing argument, strikes and kills his brother.

Having nowhere else to hold it, the wake for the son is held at the house. Many people attend, the poet’s wife becomes increasingly distraught as people willfully damage the house. Finally, the poet’s wife goes off on everyone and chases them away. Afterwards, the poet and the wife fight but then passionately make love.

The next morning, the poet’s wife announces that she’s pregnant (because that’s how that works). With the previous night’s carnage in mind as well as the news of his now pregnant wife, the poet is inspired to write.

He finishes his poetry. His work is so powerful that it immediately sells out (again, because that’s how poetry sales work). He is immediately overcome with exuberant fans that over time treat his words as cultish wisdom and that over some more time form dangerous, violent, conflicting sects at war with each other.

And then it gets weird.

And when you think it’s done being weird, it gets weirder.

And when you think it’s about as weird as it can get, it gets fucked up.

So, what’s going on here?

First of all, from the name of the characters (Him, mother, Man, Woman, Younger Brother, Oldest Son, um…Cupbearer), it’s pretty clearly some form of religious parable (think Christian traveling from City of Destruction to the Celestial City in Pilgrim’s Progress).

The filmmakers point to the poet’s wife as being symbolic of mother earth and the poet being God. The visitors are the human race coming to worship God and despoiling (in an almost casual manner) mother earth in the process. There’s obviously a Cain and Abel thing going on there. Without going into too much detail (since it’s still in theaters and I don’t want to ruin the experience of the millions of my readers), there is a sacrificed son aspect to the movie (which, by the way, is heads and shoulders the most fucked up part of the movie, caveat emptor).

Pretty clearly, if this is a religious allegory, it’s a pretty bleak one. The process moves shockingly fast from exuberant fans to worshipful fans to cult like fans to reckless/raucous fans to mass organized violence, chaos, and anarchy. If the message here is that this is the cycle that all successful religions ultimately pass through, then it’s a pretty grim one (although sometimes possibly hard to argue with).

I also think that there was a fame message to it as well. Once a person becomes famous, then his/her personal life effectively ceases to exist. The poet’s wife has basically built her life around providing a refuge for the poet to feel safe and secure to write in. Once he reaches a certain level of fame, despite his obvious love for him, he has no choice but to turn his back on her to feed his ravenous public. The poet, willing to sacrifice literally everything for his creativity, regretfully but greedily takes everything that his wife has to offer.

Cabinet of Racist Curiosities

Last week, I completed Stamped From The Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi. I’ve previously written down my thoughts on it. However, as I was reading it, I was somewhat furiously taking notes because it was so information dense.

So here is just a random list of things from the book that I found interesting. They’re in no particular order. I just wanted to get them down because, if I didn’t, then as I continue through my march of books, these interesting factoids will become lost to me.

Thomas Jefferson’s last visitor before he died was Robert E. Lee’s half brother. I keep forgetting how young our country is. To think that there is this weird connection between two key figures of both the Revolutionary War and of the Civil War is mind-boggling to me. This is similar to the fact that John Tyler, the 10th US President, born in 1790 (during the Washington administration) still has grandchildren alive today (well at least in 2016, the last article that I saw that references this).

The use of the word Negro actually became popularized during the early colonization efforts (pre Civil War attempt to address the problem of slavery/free blacks by shipping black people back to Africa). Free black people that were born here understandably did not particularly desire to be sent to Africa. Therefore, they started calling themselves Negroes in a futile attempt to get white people to stop thinking of them as being African. The use and rise of the term colored was also popularized by free black people for the same reason.

Linnaeus, the botanist, developed the system of hierarchical classification still in use today. Not so well known is that he also applied this system to humans. Shockingly enough, the European branch came out smelling like a rose (eg gentle, acute, inventive; covered with close vestments; and governed by laws) while the African branch, not so much (eg crafty, sly, lazy, cunning, lustful, careless; and governed by caprice). Like the title of the book says…Stamped From The Beginning.

Kendi discusses at length uplift suasion. This is the idea that if black people worked really hard to better themselves and also educated white people that black people can be just as good as white people, that racism will just die away. It seems totally logical, but the inevitable result of the effort wound up being the hardening of racism. If a racist white person actually encountered an educated, successful black person, the white person would start thinking, well, if this one black man/woman can do it, why can’t they all? See! I told you that they’re all good for nothing, lazy bums! Uplift suasion has been tried (and yes, is still being tried even now, what do you think The Cosby Show was all about?) for over 150 years. It will not effect the change that is required.

In many ways, Harry Truman was a pioneer in civil rights. For instance, he led the drive to end discrimination in the federal government. Was he guided by a moral compass or by the bravery of the black soldiers in WWII? Not exactly. Almost immediately after WWII, the Cold War between the US and the USSR commenced. Since it was a Cold War (albeit pretty damn hot in some places), much of it was waged through propaganda. At the time of the late 1940s, African nations, previously treated as European colonies, began their struggle for independence. USSR, in their propaganda to the Africans, could point to the segregated, overtly racist policies of the US and say to them, do you really want to be on that side? It reached a point where the State Department briefed Harry Truman that our racist policies was having a significant effect upon our foreign policy. Truman’s civil rights policies were an attempt to cast the US global image in a better light. So, yes, the USSR had a measurable impact upon the treatment of black people in the US.

The original Planet of the Apes movies, coming out from the late 1960s to the early 1970s were almost a direct response to the demands for black equality. Notice how in the future, it’s the black animals that now lord themselves over the white slaves. At the end of the original, the Charlton Heston character discovers the now destroyed Statue of Liberty, symbolizing the destruction of white liberty.

Contrast that to the Tarzan series. The first film appeared in 1918, got its steam in the 1930s and lasted into the 1960s. Here is the lost white boy that is raised by apes. Using his own innate superiority, he teaches himself to read, naturally leans towards a civilized life, and becomes the natural leader over the apes. Is there a better way to inculcate native white superiority?

The basic cycle of criminality boils down to where ever this is more police, inevitably there will be more arrests. Where ever there are more arrests there will inevitably be a perception that there is more crime. Where ever there is more crime, there inevitably will be more police. Rinse and repeat. This cycle, which Michele Alexander brilliantly discusses in The New Jim Crow is a pattern that can be tracked back to pre Civil War times.

That’s all for now. That’s enough. Stamped From Beginning is just chock full of facts that will make you change the way that you look at the world.