How Do You Kill A God?

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Movie: Thor Ragnarok

Rating: 4 Stars

The plot, such as it is, starts with Thor captured and learning that his homeland, Asgard, is foretold to be destroyed by Ragnarok. Seemingly, he thwarts this.

Discovering that Loki has exiled his father, Odin, to Earth and is impersonating him back on Asgard, Thor exposes Loki and forces him to return to Earth to rescue Odin. However, Odin understands that his time has reached the end and he dies.

His death frees his daughter, Hela, the Goddess of death. She proves stronger than both Thor and Loki, eventually overpowers them, casts them to their apparent death, and returns to take over Asgard, destroy its subjects, and lead an army to conquer other worlds.

Thor and Loki do not die but end up on what can only be described as a garbage planet, where Thor must figure out a way to get out, get back to Asgard, and reclaim it back from Hela.

There’s much more plot than that, but guess what? None of it really fucking matters. Unless you’re a hardcore canonical Marvel universe fan and connecting all of the dots is vitally important to you, really the plot exists only to show relationships between characters, have some famous actors chew some scenery, and ginormous special effects.

With that consideration, Ragnarok is a good film. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a likable enough superhero. I liked him better in the original Thor movie where he was much more brash and hubristic. As he’s maturing, he’s becoming the wise, benevolent god that is his destiny. That makes him less interesting, but he’s still fun to watch.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is still, as always, the trickster god of Nordic mythology. He can’t help his nature. Even though he truly, granted in his own way, loves Thor as a brother, he just can’t seem to abandon his mischievous ways. This, of course, makes him the more interesting brother and it does give a good counterpoint to the sometimes boring goodness that is Thor.

Speaking of famous actors chewing scenery, there is Cate Blanchett as Hela and Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster. Goldblum especially as the smarmy leader / emcee of the garbage planet is clearly having fun and making full use of all of his lines. Tessa Thompson is also in the film as the last Valkyrie, who is a drunk bounty hunter on the garbage planet.

And we can’t forget The Hulk (and he is The Hulk in most of the movie). The Hulk is continuing to be almost a comic figure in the universe. Considering the previous failed attempts at more serious Jekyll / Hyde variations of this character, this is welcome.

So, a lot of characters here and the characters in this universe just keep growing. It’ll be interesting to see if at some point there is saturation point where the movie audience shouts enough.

At this point, they haven’t, and it’s still (again, within its bounds) an enjoyable movie. The relationships between Thor and Loki, Thor and Valkyrie, and Thor and The Hulk were all predictable but predictable in a well done, warm, and humorous manner.

I definitely enjoyed it more than the more serious movies in the Marvel universe (are you listening to me Captain America: Civil War?).

I’ve talked about this before (several times now), but I’ve resigned myself that there really isn’t much dramatic tension in the Marvel universe. No main character ever really dies. How do you even kill a god like Thor?

There was a hint of an environmental message in the movie. The garbage planet is truly just a dumping ground. Garbage is dumped there around the clock. Out of the ruins of this, a civilization of primitive values (gladiatorial in nature) has arisen. Do these other planets that deposit their garbage know that this planet even exists? Do they care? Is this any different than our society having services in place to pick up our garbage weekly and deposited who knows where?

I also appreciate the diversity in casting that Marvel is increasingly embracing. There are strong female characters. There are strong minority characters. There are strong female minority characters. And hey, the movie is still entertaining and fun to watch. Go figure!

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A Motion Oil Painting

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Title: Loving Vincent

Rating: 5 Stars

This is the story of Van Gogh’s last days. The story is set a year after his death. It’s framed around a letter to Theo (Vincent’s brother) from Vincent. A post master, who knew Vincent, has the letter and gives it to his son (Armand) to deliver to Theo. Theo, unfortunately, is already dead. Therefore, the son talks to various people, trying to understand Vincent’s last days, in order to determine who should receive the letter.

That’s the basic plot. What makes this somewhat interesting is the fact that this is an animated film. What makes it unique is that the animation was not done using computers or even accomplished using old school drawing cels. It was all done using oil paintings. Yes, each frame of the film is an oil painting. The film consisted of 853 shots and 65,000 frames. To represent movement in each shot, paint was scrapped off and then added in. Over 100 artists were involved in this project.

This gives the film a feel like no other film I’ve ever seen. There are basically two styles of painting here. Those that represents the postman’s son as he talks to people who knew Vincent, are painted in Van Gogh’s style. In fact, many of the scenes are based off Van Gogh’s most famous paintings (eg Portrait of Dr Gachet, Marguerite Gachet at the Piano, Bank of the Oise at Auvers). They are alive with color with thick brush strokes.

The second style is the flashback scenes to when Vincent was still alive. They are painted in black and white and are nearly photo realistic.

I found the film surprisingly engrossing. Armand talks to many people that knew Vincent. He talks to the innkeeper’s daughter where he stayed. He talks to Dr Gachet and his daughter. He talks to the local boatman.

From this, he attempts to derive the truth of Van Gogh’s death. Did he kill himself because of love for Dr Gachet’s daughter? Did he kill himself because he knew he was a burden to his brother Theo? Did he even kill himself? Some young men from the village were known to harass him and one was known to even have a gun. Not surprising, the mystery is not resolved by the end. Different people that Armand interviewed had completely different impressions of Van Gogh and his last days. However, by the end of the film, Armand has some deeper understanding of Van Gogh and the relationships that he had.

Although I did really enjoy the story, clearly it was the art work that was mesmerizing. As you can probably imagine, showing motion is a challenge when you’re painting a series of oil paintings. At times, the film makers allowed you to see the work. As a character moved (ie was scrapped off and then re-painted) you could see the tracks of movement across the canvas. In cases where there were many characters (as in a bar scene, for instance) there would be moments where you could see a background character freeze. In particular, there was a scene that involved a fight. Watching the complexity of a fight unfold as a series of oil painting movements was fascinating.

Considering the limited form of movement ultimately that oil painting provides, there was by necessity a lot of exposition. Normally, that would have bothered me, but as I was listening I was swept up by the art on the screen, so I did not find it distracting.

Considering that impressionism, at its root, was about bringing a level of true realism (what the eye actually sees) to painting, it was an interesting approach to filming Van Gogh’s last days.

Maybe we were actually seeing the world as Van Gogh actually saw it?

Justice Is A Dish Not Best Served Cold

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Title: Blood in the Water

Rating: 5 Stars

It’s interesting to read a history covering events that have occurred in my lifetime. I come into the history with some preconception based upon probably faulty memories or impressions that I have picked up. As I read, I realize how completely I misunderstood the event of which I have a vague memory.

The Attica prison uprising is such an event. It happened in 1971, when I was eight. Obviously, I don’t have any distinct memory of it, other than just extreme vagueness. However, the myth that was in my head was that a bunch of hardened imprisoned criminals rose up against some injustice with a planned uprising, things got out of hand, and the government had to step in to take back the prison.

As I was soon to discover, that narrative has only the barest semblance to reality. It’s hard to even know where to start.

Let’s start with the prisoners. Sure, there were some violent criminals incarcerated and there were some political radicals. However, many of the prisoners were there for trivial offenses. In one case, the prisoner was incarcerated for violating his parole by driving his vehicle without a driver’s license. Yes, you could get sent to Attica for that. Not only that, there were even paroled prisoners still incarcerated. Once you received parole, you could not actually leave the prison until you found a job. Keep in mind that a lot of the prisoners were from New York City, which is over 300 miles from Attica. If you didn’t have family working to get you a job, you were given an obsolete phone book and told to find a job. I am not making that up.

The prisoners had very few clothes, weekly showers, and basically no career counseling. It was basically a warehouse for poor minorities.

There was no master plan for the riot. There was confusion regarding prisoners who were supposed to be locked in their cells but instead got out and ate breakfast with their block. The correctional officers (CO) discovered this and while the prisoners were walking back after breakfast, they were locked into a walkway by the COs. The prisoners, trapped, not understanding what was going on, began to fight back against the COs and break down the locked gate. In the ensuing confusion, several guards were injured, including one seriously enough that he ultimately died. By the end, the prisoners had taken over one of the prison yards and had taken several COs as hostages.

This started four days of negotiations. In hindsight, it was pretty clear that the prisoners really weren’t going to accomplish anything. The officials were just biding time. In the meantime, more and more COs, deputies, and state police were gathering outside Attica, desperate to come in and free the hostages.

At the end of the negotiations, the law enforcement officers were given the go ahead to retake the prison. The state police were told to remove all insignia to prevent identification. Random law enforcement were assigned weapons and ammo with no attempt to log who was assigned what.

Tear gas was dropped and law enforcement rushed in, guns blazing. Amazingly, some of the prisoners stood in front of some of the hostages to protect them. In the ensuing chaos, nearly all hostages were wounded by gunfire and some eight or so died. Hundreds of prisoners were shot, some forty or so fatally. There were reports of prisoners desperately hiding in crawl spaces and law enforcement pointing their guns blindly into the space and firing. There were injured prisoners on the ground that were then shot. There were injured prisoners on the ground that were beaten. Prisoners were stabbed with screwdrivers. In the aftermath of the riot, to get back to their cells, prisoners were stripped naked and were forced to crawl through glass while running a gauntlet of COs beating them with clubs and sticks. For days, badly injured prisoners were refused medical treatment and for days, the torture of prisoners continued.

Thus does the forces of civilization save the world from the barbarous anarchy of a prison riot.

In the immediate aftermath of the riot, political, prison, and law enforcement officials all toe the official line that hostages were murdered by the prisoners, including a ghastly tale of a hostage that was castrated and had his genitals shoved into his mouth. Except for I think two prisoners, all deaths that happened during the riot were proven to be gun shot victims. It was known that no prisoners had guns. State police unsuccessfully tried to intimidate coroners conducting autopsies into concluding that the victims died from a cause other than gunfire.

Nearly all subsequent prosecutorial attempts were to convict the prisoners of crimes. No effective attempt was made to try any of the law enforcement officers who blindly ran into the prison wantonly firing, let alone the many acts of torture that took place in its aftermath.

The prisoners never gave up. They found some lawyers and fought for over thirty years to get the state to admit their wrongdoing. Ultimately, they did prevail and the surviving members did get some sum of money. It was not at all commiserate with the brutality that they experienced, but it was at least some acknowledgment of their suffering.

The hostages and their families, if anything, were treated even worse by the state. They were essentially tricked into cashing checks that effectively gave them no recourse to sue the state. Make no mistake about it. The state went about this scheme with aforethought to prevent them from taking action. Some of the widows refused to back down and continued to fight for their justice. In their case, it took closer to forty years, but eventually they reached a settlement with the state as well. As with the prisoners, not commiserate with their suffering, but at least it was something.

Over forty years later, there are still documents that the state of New York refuses to release. In fact, some documents that the author had access to earlier have been pulled back.

This obviously was not happy reading. It’s a grim litany of government callous misdeeds and its craven attempts to cover it up.

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.