Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Pearl Harbor 75

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A carrier fleet sent planes to attack the American navy base there, and achieved complete surprise, and devastated the American fleet there. It as not just a surprise, but illegal, since translation and decoding difficulties delayed the Japanese embassy's delivery of its declaration of war until after the attack had taken place - probably not very important practically, but important propaganda... At about the same time, Japan launched attacks across the Pacific, in the Philippines and other American possessions, on British Hong Kong and southeast Asia (Malaya), and so on. They swept all before them - by spring they held the Malay peninsular and Singapore, Borneo and New Guinea, they'd taken the Philippines, the Allies were driven back to Australia, and it was in danger. But that was as far as they got.

In the end, Pearl Harbor did the Japanese no good. They did terrible damage to the American battleship fleet, but there were no carriers present - so it did little more than inconvenience the Americans. The attack itself showed this change: a carrier based air force wrecked a host of surface ships - that was the way the war was going to go. Carriers and their planes were going to do the major work: everything else was support. The Japanese made it worse, by concentrating on the ships, and neglecting the harbor - they did not bomb supplies or ship building and repair facilities or oil or armament stores - the port and its facilities were far more important o the Americans than the ships. Attacking the ships had the biggest psychological impact on the Americans, but all of it bad for Japan - it's easy to identify with ships; attacking ships meant casualties were probably a lot higher than if they had attacked facilities - all pissing the USA off and keeping the infamy of the attack in the front of their minds. Attacking facilities would have been far more useful strategically, and probably less harmful politically - though probably not by much. As it was, the US never lost the use of the port, and got most of the ships back in service before the war was over - they ended up pissing us off without doing the country any real harm.

It brought us into the war. We immediately declared war on Japan - a few days later, Germany and Italy declared war on us - almost as big a folly as Japan's attacks, probably. They might have gotten away with not fighting us for a while had they not declared war. Though we were pretty overtly committed to Britain by that time, so we'd have been in the shooting soon enough. And in the event - we took a licking from Japan in those early months, finally stopping their advances at the Coral Sea and Midway, before pushing back, starting at Guadalcanal, and moving on from there, with ever diminishing effective resistance. Though dug in Japanese could exact a terrific toll on their attackers - but they were increasingly isolated as the war went on, as Japan's navy and especially their naval air forces were destroyed. It was a carrier war - though lots of infantrymen had to die to convince the Japanese they were beat...

Friday, November 11, 2016


Armistice day is on us again. 98 years since the war to end all wars ended, and the world immediately began preparations for the next war. It's a hard week to find anything good to say. World War I isn't the central event of American history the way it is in modern European history - the Civil War is. But we're still fighting the Civil War - Trump ran and won as much against the results of the Civil War as anything else. When both the Civil War and WWI ended, the losers set about instantly to try to undo the results, and refight the wars if they need to. This country still hasn't accepted the results of the Civil War...

All right. This is about Armistice Day - Veteran's day in the US - we can, should, honor veterans today, but we should also keep the spirit of early remembrances of the day, and the hope that somehow, this horrible cataclysm might move people to work against wars. Remember the sacrifices, remember the sheer horror of The Great War, and try to do something to stop it from happening, over and over again.

And, today - remember Leonard Cohen. This year - it's parade of good and great people dying (as well as a few monsters) just never seems to stop. Cohen was another of those musicians with a long, deep career and a massive body of work that I dipped into almost at random, never quite embracing the whole thing - but loving the parts I knew. So - we're heavy on the early stuff below, because I had them going obsessively there for a while... He's also someone who's songs could absolutely transform a movie: McCabe & Mrs. Miller is the most obvious, but everybody knows in Exotica was a jolt as well... He will be missed; and reading this new, this week, is a fucking stab in the gut...

So: video - start with Cohen doing his part for Remembrance day, from last year - reciting In Flanders Fields:

And songs - the ones that got me, and kept me the longest. Suzanne:

Bird on a Wire:

The Stranger, from McCabe and Mrs Miller (the title sequence):

And the Partisan:

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

What Now?

I don't know how this happened. You could see it was close, there were plenty of reasons to panic, but generally speaking, the polls still favored Clinton coming into yesterday, and everything I could see that might not show up in the polling seemed to favor her even more. Turnout - her GOTV operation, and general campaign competence - early voting - the increased numbers of blacks and hispanics voting, the gender gap - all things that might not be obvious, but should nudge the numbers a little bit her way.

But none of them paid off. What happened? I don't know - all I have are that white people really are evil, and more of them are evil than I thought... and decades of making politics seem meaningless have paid off in an electorate that places identity politics and weird talk about "change" or whatever the fuck Trump people voted for ahead of self-interest. That core of poorer, less educated white people that voted for Trump are hard to take - they will suffer and suffer badly in the next four years, and they will probably still find ways to blame the Democrats. I think the core of this problem is that Trump convinced people it was more important to make the other guy suffer than to benefit yourself. That and working very hard through the years to obscure the policies that do benefit people, and how they benefit them. Well - they will have to live with their votes now - though I'm sure the GOP will continue to work very hard to make them blame someone else, while the people in charge clean out the till.

As for the results: good god this is terrifying. The markets are already plunging. I don't know if it would have helped Hillary Clinton all that much to run on the fact that Wall Street wanted her to be elected - but - the economic and financial professionals obviously did want her elected. She did promise as much stability as a government is able to give to the economic world - easy as it is to demonize capitalists, money is going to change hands - keeping that system functioning is a good part of what governments do. What will happen now? It's hard to see any good coming of it: the GOP is likely to gut many of the safeguards against economic collapse, they will certainly stop the progress being made toward a real economic recovery (like movements to raise the minimum wage). The recovery is decent, but it's always been fragile, making do without the kind of help governments should be providing - now, the government will begin actively working against it - it bodes ill. I think the question is not will there be a recession, but when will the recession start? and will it turn into a depression? Republicans have no idea how to handle economic collapse - they turn to "austerity" and make them worse, almost by instinct.

Or maybe worse. Maybe Trump isn't as stupid as he acts - maybe he (like more conservatives than are willing to admit it) knows perfectly well that Keynsian economics works, that you spend your way out of a depression. But the right wing method of spending your way out of a depression is to start a war - at least, ramp up your military. They are as Keynsian as any liberal, when push comes to shove, but they have to wrap their spending in the prospect of killing foreigners. This is not a recipe for long term success as a country. Who will we invade? Mexico? Syria? Iran? Jesus Christ....

That is that. Let's attempt something optimistic: how does this not end in the apocalypse? (I guess people were right about the Cubs and the world series, huh?) Well - this is certainly going to heighten those contradictions - 4 years of Trump and the GOP could bring out Democratic voters in droves. It's happened before - Hoover led to FDR, Bush led to Obama - that, plus the natural tendency of politics to oscillate could have the Dems back in charge of the Senate by 2018, and might bring another Democratic landslide in 2020. It's possible... Or - being forced to govern might change the GOP, or more likely, break it. It's one thing to obstruct and resist and manipulate voter anxieties for your own electoral gains: it's another entirely to make the decisions and have to face the consequences. If they repeal Obamacare, and people see just how much good it did for them - they might find out you don't always want what you think you want. Or even before - it's not as easy as they think to go after social programs - Bush couldn't do it after 2004, even with all three branches of government - being in charge again might start breaking up some of the party discipline the GOP has maintained in the last few years. Could happen. Add in the fact that Trump is incompetent, lazy and likely to wish he'd lost before the week is out, and things might not degenerate as much as they could.

But those are thin threads to hang on. And looking at this election, the lesson the GOP might take is that they can do absolutely anything, cause any amount of suffering, and be able to blame it on Moslems or Mexicans of blacks or Jews, and keep their core voters voting for them.

That is terrifying.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Election 2016

Well, election season is down to the end. I vote tomorrow. I'm voting for Hillary Clinton, which should be obvious. It's easy to get caught up in how bad Donald Trump is - and he is very very bad - but this is a positive vote too. Clinton was never my first choice, but she was always a solid pick. Most of what she will do I support whole heartedly - even when she doesn't go as far as I'd like, she'd move policy in the right direction. (Sure I'd prefer a real, universal, public health insurance system - but I'll happily take a better hybrid system...) Even where I don't like her policies (She is far too bellicose for me - she was dead wrong on the most important vote of her life, the vote for the Iraq war, and still seems more inclined to favor war than other Democrats...) she is almost unimaginably better than any Republican she could run against. The personal stuff against her is almost all bullshit - people have been trying to find something against her for decades,a nd never manage to find anything more than some carelessness with email - a problem almost everyone else in Washington shares. At her worst, she's still better than any Republican, and plenty of Democrats.

So I'm with her. And yes - I'd be with her even if she were far worse than she is. Parties matter more than people - that's always been true, and party politics have become hard as a rock in the last 20 years or so. But I'd be with her even if the parties were a lot less rigid than they are - she's better in every way than anyone else in this race from day one except Bernie Sanders, and maybe Bill Weld. (Though she'd get my vote over Weld on politics.) One of the effects of the Republicans doulbing down every 2 years on their neo-confederate authoritarian robber baron core is that almost all the serious political disagreement and policy debate occurs inside the Democratic party. The race between Sanders and Clinton raised interesting choices - policies vs. experience, incremental vs. drastic changes, which economic issues to address first - all those are real choices. None of the Republicans offered useful policies in the least. Tax cuts and threatening minorities and women is pretty much the sum total of their platform. That and refusing to govern, unless they are completely in charge.

(I have to expand on that a bit: when they hold the presidency, they work very hard to concentrate power in the hands of the president. They did so all during Bush's years, giving the presidency more and more power all the time. When Obama won, they carried this on, through the simple expediency of refusing to participate in government. They obstruct what Obama and the Democrats tried to do - and they continue to concentrate power in the presidency. f they win it back, things will not go well for the Republic. It's not just the horror of Donald Trump that would make it so - it's their theory of government. They are, genuinely, neo-cofederate authoritarian robber barons - they want a strong, single source of power; that is their model. That has to change, as much as their commitment to racism, xenophobia and misogyny, is they are to be worthy of holding power again...)

So I guess this is an easy one. Vote for Hillary Clinton; elect a woman president, and make history; be proud of your country; and give us a fighting chance to actually be a country worth living in.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

World Series and Crazy Christians

I am getting lazy lazy about blogging, but have to come in here for this - the World Series starts tonight - with some good old fashioned curses on the line. Cubs and Indians! Though for me, it looks like a Red Sox intramural game - Tito, Napoli, Miller, Coco Crisp vs. Theo, Lester, Lackey, Anthony Rizzo (probably why Theo is in Chicago - if AdGon had worked out in Boston, he and Tito might still be there...) Fun times!

All logic dictates the Cubs to win. If the Indians had their full compliment of pitchers, it would be close to a toss up, since with Kluber, Salazar, Carrasco and Tomlin, they would be a match for anyone. As it is - Cubs just have more at their disposal. And some big game players in there - Lester going for his third ring, Lackey too... But still - I think I might root for the Indians. Underdogs - and not the Cubs. Much as I like this edition, they are the Cubs...

Meanwhile - as far from that as you can get - I read that Jack Chick has died. Well - not completely unrelated. Chick's tracts - the little ones, the ones people handed out at camp meetings and on the streets - have always been around me, and I got to read a good sample fo them when I was a kid. I always remember This Was Your Life - some smug asshole gets struck dead at a party and goes before the throne of god to be confronted with his sins. Typical camp meeting style scare mongering "evangelism" - with a line I couldn't ignore. At one point our damned hero is sitting in church - he's all excited - "see! I went to church!" - but god can read minds: "I wonder who's winning the ball game?" That's a burning offense! And poor me, sitting in some church service, wondering who was, in fact, winning the ball game, or who would make the all star game, or whatever occupied my mind, thought, well - I guess I am one of the damned too....

So: now he is dead, Mr. Chick. Im not sure if it's more surprising that he was still alive, or that he existed at all - there is something about those little tracts that suggests an elaborate joke of some kind. Dark dungeons, in particular, has taken on a pretty strong half life as a camp classic - but a lot of them have that effect. Even when I was a kid and subject to that kind of pressure more than I care to admit, Chick tracts were almost amusing, and somehow extremely compelling. I think it's the art - the simple, crude, mostly realistic style - it was within my reach, maybe. I wished I could draw, tell stories in pictures (and words), and those tracts showed a way to do it. Maybe. I know that - here's an irony for you - the look of those comics had the same effect that the art in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books had, especially the incidental art in the DMG - "no honor among thieves" - the same pen and ink drawings, clear and quick points, little mini-narratives in every picture... like marginal doodles. I have a soft spot for that kind of art generally - illustrations in Hardy Boys books do the same thing. Great stuff. So - I could smirk at the heavy handed fire and brimstone stuff and admire the form, even in high school or before....

Though that didn't work so well when I came across some of the comic books he published. The Crusaders - sweet holy fucking Jesus! The tracts are fairly standard issue high pressure Repent or Go To Hell! "evangelism" or cheesy culture war stuff (taking on evolution, D&D or whatever). But the comics? I saw some of those when I was in high school still - fairly innocuous things about smuggling bibles into Russia or whatever - but in college, I came across the harder stuff. One of the guys had a pile of them he'd let people read - and these... I guess it's the "Alberto" stuff that really took the prize: a former Jesuit who found the truth and revealed the inner workings of the Catholic church. Yikes: they invented communism, evolution, satanism, nazism, homosexuality and rock and roll (if I remember it right), all while priests and nuns fucked like rabbits and filled tunnels with aborted fetuses.... I don't think that is hyperbole. They were astonishing, those comics - both for their virulent anti-Catholicism (in 1979! I still heard some ant-papists running around in the 70s and 80s, but even the worst of them weren't accusing the pope of founding both the communists and nazis), and for the batshit insanity of it all. It was stuff straight from the good old days, 19th century know nothing anti-catholic propaganda (rather specifically: I saw the same stories in 19th century anti-Catholic tracts)... horror show stuff, played - kind of straight. Though like a lot of things, it's hard to tell the difference between someone trying to seriously argue that the pope founded the communist and nazi parties, and someone parodying the idea, to make a good horror story...

Anyway. I can't deny, I found those things fascinating - the tracts anyway. The comics, trying for a more sophisticated style, plus their plain evil, were less interesting. Read them once and walk away... But the tracts - people still hand them out on the streets once in a while and I look them over with that odd mix of amusement and revulsion, and, well, envy - at some weird level, making art, no matter what the purpose, offers something like redemption, even for evil people and evil art. Maybe that attitude goes back to Chick, just a bit - the split between the stupidity and viciousness of the content, and the inherent value of being able to express yourself is very strong in some of those tracts. I suppose I am one of the damned - damned to formalism. There are worse things, though.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

Bob Dylan has won the nobel prize for literature. This is surprisingly moving to me - fills me with more delight than I could have imagined. There will be complaints (that one isn't stupid, just a complaint that Dylan is a musician, not a writer; or something), but I don't care. Dylan's art is made of words, and words are literature, and that's enough for me.

I wrote about him recently so I won't go into depth again. The relevant part of that essay might be this paragraph - Bob the writer:
Leave it then. Let's get to the good stuff. Because there is no denying his genius: as a writer at least, though he is not slouch as a songwriter, and though he is not what you would call a singer - he is most definitely a voice. But it is the words that make him what he is. I sometimes come across people who doubt the Bob - who try to show he wasn't so good after all - they are incorrect. They might complain about some aspect of his writing - the obscurity and obliqueness of some of his songs - but they complain about those things by ignoring the songs that are nothing like that: that get to the point and fast. What's obscure about Hurricane or the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll? But plain or obscure, conventional or experimental - he was always sharp, dazzling, surprising and careful. The words make him what he is, the words and how he uses them. It's there in those piles of words, lines, images in the early songs - in the clear, direct statement of songs like the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll - in the meandering narratives of 70s songs, from Desire or Blood on the Tracks. He uses words to make music - the way they clash and throng, jammed together out of time, their mysterious pauses and transitions, repetitions, all the poetic tricks he uses - rhymes and internal rhymes and alliterations and assonance - While preachers preach of evil fates/Teachers teach that knowledge waits... lay slain by a cane... (or those three tables, also in ...Hattie Carroll...) - they all add up. However they read on the page, he always wrote these words to be sung - or performed, anyway - they are rhythmic and propulsive, ragged (usually), fitted to his voice. It's as if the words were a musical instrument.
For the full appreciation, I would recommend Edroso - he's far more eloquent... But for me - this makes perfect sense. Song writers deserve to be honored as writers once in a while. It is good to have people appreciate words across different media. As for Dylan himself: I like him, though he is probably not my favorite songwriter, even considered purely as a writer. I always liked Lou Reed more; I have my own little pantheon of heroes - Richard Thompson, David Thomas, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey - and in more conventional styes, Mick Jagger (And Keith Richards, whatever their division of duties is), and, maybe most of all, Smokey Robinson. But those are my preferences, undoubtedly idiosyncratic in places - and Dylan has the advantage over all of them in terms of the length and breadth of his career, his influence, both on the world and other writers/singers/musicians. He did indeed strike out in new directions as a "pop" songwriter - the others followed. Most of them (the ones I named) explicitly following Dylan. So - you bet he deserves this prize.

And so? some music, huh? A beautiful video for Don't Think Twice, It's All Right.

Something about the roots - where he comes from, where he took it - and, you know.. Dylan on TV, singing Man of Constant Sorrow:

And - influence: Richie Havens covering All Alongthe Watchtower:

And deeper influence, I guess - a school of rock band covering the Minutemen's Bob Dylan Wrote the Propaganda Songs":

Friday, October 07, 2016

Baseball Playoffs and Weather

So the sox lost last night, Porcello giving up three gopher balls in quick succession - yup. I should have written some predictions on this stuff - maybe I will after all. I don't know what the Red Sox are going to do - the starters are very good - but I don't trust any of them. I don't know. The offense cruised along, but sort of took the last week or so off - Bogaerts looks tired - so I don't know. Said that too much. I want them to win, but I want the Indians (and Terry Francona, and Mike Napoli, Andrew Miller, Coco Crisp, etc) to win. So - still think the Sox might be slight favorites, even down a game, but they could be done in three.

Since I'm doing this - I think the Blue Jays will win their series. Obviously got the right kind of start. Texas is a strange team - best record in the American league, but barely outscored their opponents - that is not a recipe for beating any of the other teams in this post-season.

I think the Sox would beat the Jays, if they play in the next round; I think the Jays will beat the Indians (who are missing too many of their pitchers) if they play...

And NL? I think the Nats will finally win something, beating the Dodgers. I certainly hope so.

And the Cubs? I mean - they're supposed to win the world series, and if they don't, well - but they are playing the Giants and it is an even numbered year. The Cubs can take comfort in the fact that Bumgarner isn't likely to start more than one game, though who knows how many relief innings he'll throw. Yep.

After that? Cubbies should still win through. Though, you know - Bumgarner. Unless the Cubs hold their regular season form, this is a pretty open post-season.

World Series? if the Red Sox can beat the Indians, they should win the series. If they don't - Cubs are the obvious pick; Giants though - what can you say? You mean I have to commit? Sox if they win this series - Cubs if they don't.

I really want to see Nats and Indians, and Tito get another one. But hey...

Meanwhile - here's Bob Dylan offering advice for those in the path of the hurricane - stay safe! (And gotta say: man, this is a scorching take on the song.)

Wednesday, October 05, 2016


(Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark.)

Alphaville is the first Godard film I ever saw, way back in the mid-80s. I saw it on a double bill with Alexander Nevsky, if my memory is accurate after 30 odd years. I remember liking Nevsky, though finding it all a bit strange; but Alphaville was a revelation. I had ideas about what Godard was supposed to be like - he was supposed to be difficult, possibly blasphemous (this is back around the time of Hail Mary - which I think was the second Godard film I ever saw, and came a bit closer to what I had been led to expect.) Instead, I saw this astonishing science fiction noir...

It is a beautiful film, with its rich play of light and dark, its bodies in rest and motion in overlit antiseptic spaces and dingy dark hallways, its faces, its eyes, especially Anna Karina's face and eyes. It's an overpoweringly romantic film - I walked out enthralled by Eluard and the staging of his poetry, Anna Karina’s voice, the light and dark, hands and faces, the strange contrast between Karina and Eddie Constantine - that sequence is, by itself, one of the most romantic, achingly sensual, passages ever put on film. I had never seen anything like it then, and haven't seen much like it since. But what might have been even more surprising was how funny the film is. Full of jokes, full of wit, visual, verbal, jokes coming out of the material, the references, the performances, staging, the setting. (That machine that asks you to insert a coin, then gives you a thank you token.) It's always serious, but never takes itself seriously - a pretty universal trait in Godard’s films. They are funny - they are full of serious things, conversations, ideas, images - but they are packed with jokes, visual and verbal puns, in jokes, references and allusions that become comical in context. (And it gets even funnier when you start spotting the things Monty Python stole - it's tattooed on the back of their neck!) It was a fine introduction to Godard - it conditioned me to look for beauty, romanticism, sensuality and wit, as well as Deep Thoughts and Art. (Which it has; don't discount that.)

And even more - it worked quite well, when I saw it the first time, as straight up science fiction. It holds up as science fiction now, both as pop fiction and for its ideas. It's ideas are legit, it’s image of the future: artificial intelligence, technology and technocracy, its particular brand of dystopia - a cool vicious embrace of science and logic, a technocratic tyranny, power diffused and de-personalized, a cruel, violent regime uncluttered by charismatic monsters. Dr. Von Braun is a cold dead eyed technocratic sadist, surrounded by dull technicians who follow him around like nervous interns. The only villain with any personality is Alpha 60 itself, a thing of rhythmic flashing lights, slide shows, and a mechanical voice. People have become zombies in this world, responding automatically - "Yes, I'm fine, don't mention it" - to any conversation; clapping politely at executions - their responses as automated as machines. Against this comes Lemmy Caution violent cool in a trench coat, cigarettes, and 45 automatic, crashing through this world with passion, emotion and art. This might be Godard's most Romantic film, too - in the sense of Romanticism as the embrace of passion, art and beauty, emotion and disorder against logic, order, science. Lemmy comes bearing pop culture props and poetry and represents the artist very well. He represents Godard very well - this is his quintessential mixture - pop culture and high art, science fiction tropes (high and low science fiction), plus noir, plus comics, plus high art, Eluard and Celine, and Cinema, always cinema - and maybe some general semantics to boot. All of it is fed in, all of it is taken seriously, and all of it is material for jokes. Nothing is allowed to settle in Godard's films - and it's that settling, that insistence on control, predictability, order, that Godard (and Lemmy) object to under the rule of Alpha 60.

Though in fact even the computer is more complicated that that. It is commanding and charismatic, in its way - almost Romantic, in a strange sense. A Satanic figure, undone by the hero - but compelling in itself. Satanic in Mick Jagger's sense, which itself is a Romantic notion of the devil - Satanic like Lucifer, bringer of light, trying to take the place of god, to rule all creation - not a bad description of Alpha 60.

And yet it’s a very ordinary monster, that computer - represented by just what you see there - lights, wires, boxes; sometimes by fans, or a simple flashing light, and always by a disembodied, mechanical, voice. This is another extraordinary quality of Alphaville - it is a very convincing science fiction film made up entirely of things in the real, contemporary (1965), world. It is probably the epitome of the type of film I referred to writing about Face of Another, films that shoot the real world to look and feel like science fiction. Alphaville is shot on the streets of Paris, in the buildings of Paris - but the glass and steel Paris, the modern Paris, of lights and machines and clean, modernist design. It looks other-worldly.

Godard constructs a futuristic world from this. Streets and cars and most of the actual technology are all contemporary, though shot and combined to look alien. Godard treats the world as it is like a science fiction place: flying in from New York (6000 miles away), becomes intergalactic travel. Only the computers are not part of the everyday world - but they are perfectly normal contemporary (1965) machines. Rooms full of banks of processors, wires, with keyboards and switches and card slots and flashing lights. You don’t see a lot of computers from 1965 - though it's interesting to consider that the back rooms where the real computing lives aren't that commonly seen now. We see the desktops and laptops and screens, keyboards and mice, the phones and tablets and all the other things people use - everything that interfaces with humanity. But even now, we don’t see the back rooms, where the infrastructure lives. Even now, it seems a bit alien when you see it (in Werner Herzog’s new internet film, say) - and not much different from what it looked like in 1965. Routers and processors and disk arrays and wires haven’t changed that much.

Though Godard does imagine the interface with humanity, though this didn't exist so much in 1965. It's an odd mix of analog and digital - invisible technology, disembodied voices, pervasive surveillance, microwave ovens - all made of sound and light. He warps it out of the real world, combining things in strange ways, showing pieces of the world, showing a world of sound and light, reflections and window panes, that subtly distort the world. Inside and outside, up and down, intermingle - it's an odd, translucent world, up on the surface....

And when the chance comes to use cinema to transform the world, he’s ready:

And so it is. A beautiful film, funny, fairly exciting, as adventure yarn (at least containing action scenes, half joke and half real excitement), imagining a dystopic future and what might be done about it, arguing what we have to protect - art, love, words - without quite (quite) disavowing what we could get from technology. And at times, almost exploding from sheer passion, desire and loss. Alphaville, the Capital of Pain, indeed...

Friday, September 30, 2016

Music for a Friday

Yikes, but I have neglected this blog. There have been reasons: a holiday, then a trip to Canada, then some work obligations (a big Friday meeting), etc. - but I can't rule out sheer laziness. I suppose plenty has happened I could write about, but I am not going to write about it, not today. I am just going to post some music videos and a list, to remind you - and maybe more importantly, me, that I am here and still exist.

1. Grateful Dead - Easy Wind
2. Half Japanese - Frankenstein Must Die!
3. Al Stewart - You Don't Even Know Me
4. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
5. Big Star - Take Care
6. The Cars - My Best Friend's Girl
7. Charlie Parker - Cool Blues
8. AC/DC - Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution
9. The Jodimars - Clarabella
10. Lightning Bolt - King of My World

and some video: a nicely obscure list, which makes it hard to dig out video... Here's Marshall Lytle from the Jodimars, singing Clarabella:

I suppose finding live Dead is neer too much a challenge:

And, give in to the hits, huh? Here's the Cars, 1979:

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Face of Another

Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark, part of their fantastic science fiction countdown.

Science Fiction can come in many forms. There are the big world building SF stories imagining whole worlds different from ours, however rigorously they might work out how they got to be different. Think Metropolis, Star Trek, Brazil, Children of Men. There are smaller world building exercises, where something alien or some invented technology is dropped into the world, and we see how the world reacts: think The Thing from Another World, or Under the Skin, or Midnight Special. But there is another type that isn’t, really, about world building at all. In these stories, something is changed – technology, usually, something that doesn’t exist in fact – and it is used to tell an intimate story, about a small group of people, with no direct implications for the world at large. (Though with indirect implications, maybe.) The Face of Another, a 1966 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, from a novel by Kobo Abe, is this kind of story. It is science fiction because of one detail – the face itself – a detail used to justify what is mainly a psychological study, with horror overtones.

The story is this: a man (Okuyama) is burned in an accident, his face ruined, forcing him to wear bandages the rest of his life. He broods, alienated from his wife, his co-workers, everyone. He has a doctor, a psychiatrist who dabbles in science (making prosthetics) who says he will make him a face that will look exactly like a real face. He does so, all the time speculating on how this different face will change Okuyama’s psyche. Okuyama puts it on, and starts establishing a second life – but his ultimate intention is to try to seduce his wife with the new face. He tries it and it works all too well – he is horrified at her unfaithfulness. (He has made himself jealous.) When he confronts her, though, she says she knew all along, and thought he knew – thought this was a shared masquerade, to get past the complications of his bandages. She thought he was being considerate of her. (He is not considerate of anyone.) After that, whatever claims he had to sanity are gone – he attacks a woman in the street, and when the doctor bails him out, put him out of his misery – and then? Good question. This story is intercut with another story, a young woman with a terrible scar on her face, probably from Nagasaki, though half of her face is beautiful. She suffers and becomes increasingly anxious about the coming of another war, until she pulls her hair back and walks into the sea.

This is presented more as a psychological thriller, or horror, than as science fiction. It’s themes are mainly from horror – bodily integrity (and its loss); questions of identity itself; the sense of the darkness inside us being given an external form, that turns on us. The Self and The Other is one of the great themes of horror, and the main theme of this film. Its precedents are familiar horror situations – doppelgängers and Faust type stories – doubles, tempters and tempted, the chance to become someone else. The science fiction here essentially replaces the supernatural or psychological motivations of classic horror – Okuyama doesn’t go mad (as in Dostoevsky’s The Double) or make a dealt with the devil (as in Faust) – he gets a prosthetic face. This is, in fact, a rich tradition within science fiction itself, especially early science fiction. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau all tell stories that feel closer to gothic horror than to science fiction, and explore themes associated with horror, while using technologies as the justification for their marvels. All involve doubles, secret identities, divided selves, tempting, corrupting figures, bodily monstrosity and so on – as does The Face of Another.

It has all of it in fact – with the Doctor serving both as Okuyama’s doppelgänger and his Mephistopheles. It’s a double function (of course it’s a double function) that recalls the plot of The Student of Prague, where the devil takes the student’s mirror image for his own purposes, and foreshadows works like Bad Influence and Fight Club (though Fight Club resolves the double/tempter back into one character), and especially Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Doppelganger. (A film definitely influenced by this one.) The doctor enables Okuyama to live a double life; he urges him to take advantage of it, though he imagines the freedom as corrupting. He pushes Okuyama to act, and begins to seem to urge him to act out his (the doctor’s) desires. The doctor come off even more sinister than Okuyama – he is a Dr. Jekyll who is not willing to swallow the potion himself; he pushes Okuyama to act out his own darker urges, while keeping himself out of it, trying to eschew responsibility for what he pushes Okuyama to do. Though as doubles it’s hard to say who is corrupting whom – the doctor allows Okuyama to follow his worst instincts while telling himself the doctor put him up to it – as much as the reverse. But that constantly switching perspective is what the film is about.

Teshigahara is a stylist, and the film’s themes are given rigorous formal treatment. It is a film about masks and doubles, about reflections and reversals, about unstable identities, and it is made up of all those things. Doubles: Okuyama and the doctor; Okuyama and the scarred girl. Repetitions: scenes – Okuyama arriving at the apartment, first with his bandages, then with his Face, encountering the super’s daughter, then her father, in just the same way, touring the rooms in just the same way; situations – arriving at his boss’ office, scenes with his wife; shots – Okuyama facing the camera with his wife behind him, then his wife facing the camera with Okuyama behind her. Scenes, shots, situations repeat, reverse, reflect one another. This is most consistent and extreme in the relationship between Okuyama and the doctor, of course. Every device appears: the two as doubles of one another, as parts of one another, overlapping, as mirror images of one another, either specially or in color (one in white, the other black, which happens repeatedly); scenes are repeated – they go to the beer hall twice, where they talk and drink – while reversing their positions (right and left) and their suits (Okuyama wears dark, the doctor light the first time, they reverse it the second time) between visits.

They are the strongest pairing in the film, but not the only one. Okuyama is linked to the scarred girl; all the women – Okuyama’s wife, the doctor’s wife, his nurse, the boss’s secretary – form a series of displacements of one another, visually, structurally. They haunt the film – recognizing Okuyama, not recognizing Okuyama, flitting around the edge of the frame (the doctor’s wife tucked off in the back of the frame as he and the nurse talk and flirt), erupting, now and then, into something fully uncanny. No one is quite who they seem – or quite who they are. (Though some are more aware and accepting of this than others.)

Finally, all this style does one more thing – it makes the film look like science fiction. This is especially so in the doctor’s office, with its glass shelves and windows and reflections, its floating body parts and instruments, its shifting perspectives, its pristine futuristic strangeness.

But it extends the look to the rest of the film as well. Okuyama’s apartment, his office, the airport where they buy his face, the streets of Tokyo, all have a similar alienating modernity. It’s a look common in films of the 1960s – as if filmmakers discovered the modern (and modernist) city, and found it as surprising and foreign as any science fiction city. The idea of the contemporary city as a kind of science fiction setting appears in many ’60s films – sometimes explicitly, as in Alphaville or the shots of Tokyo in Solaris – sometimes implicitly, as in Antonioni’s city scapes, or Playtime, or any of a host of stylish thrillers. They emphasize the alienating modernity of the glass and steel city, making it as sterile and alien as the future everytown in Things to Come. The sense, which is very strong in this film, especially in the doctor’s office, is that actual science fiction would be almost redundant. The world itself is already science fiction – they don’t need complex world building to create an alien world: they just need to show the streets and offices and people as they are. (Maybe with some extra floating ears…)

This was, of course, especially true in Japan, in Tokyo, a city wiped off the map twice in the first half to the 20th century (by the 1922 earthquake and World War II), and rebuilt twice, more modern and ambitious than before. And a population rebuilt as well – remade after the war, a country and culture largely reimagined after the war. That sense of alienation runs through so much of post-war Japanese films and literature, giving it tremendous power. The nation itself had to confront who it was, what its identity was, what was real and what not – and find ways to enact the new selves it was supposed to inhabit. That tension – the sense of human beings as aliens – it embodied (very literally) by Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance as well. In the bandages, he has to act with his body and his eyes; with the mask, he has to perform both the performance of normality and the fact that it is a performance, that his face is a mask. The way he moves – his control of his face – the way he sits, while he is being fitted for the mask, is one of the most alienating physical performances on screen. He’s an alien, as off, in everything he does, as a robot or space man – he is fantastic.

And so, to end, with one more note, about one more bit of doubling. There are two stories in the film – and the second story, of the scarred girl and her brother, looks quite different from the strange modernism of Okuyama’s story. She moves along older looking streets, through older parts of the city. The psychiatric ward where she works is old and shabby, with none of the modernism of the Doctor’s rooms. When she and her brother leave the city, they go to the sea – they walk on the beach, they explore caves, they stay in a conventional looking seaside resort. They are contrasted with the new Japan of the doctor and Okuyama – but they hardly fare any better. She carries the scars of the wars, dreading the next war, losing herself and coming apart as surely as Okuyama does. There is no comfort in the old, any more than the new; no sense that authenticity will save you any more than masquerading will.

Friday, September 02, 2016


This year has been a rough one for pop culture - more than that: for film culture, music, any kind of culture. This week is no exception, bringing two more deaths - Gene Wilder, for pop culture... And in my own little niche of online film nerds, the almost impossible to process news that Allan Fish, co-founder of Wonders in the Dark, has died.

This feels a lot like when I heard Edward Copeland had died. Another person I only knew through the internet, who holds an outsized place in my world. I mentioned then that Wonders in the Dark reminded me of Copeland's blog in its hey day - it's true: the sense of community, the importance of the conversation, and the devotion to the art forms being discussed were very much alike. Wonders in the Dark goes on, and Allan's influence will remain - but his voice will be missed.

I didn't have a lot of direct interaction with him - occasional random conversations in comment threads - my interactions with the blog have mostly been with Sam Juliano. (Not unusual: Sam is one of the world's great interacters.) I know Allan could be prickly when he was arguing about film, but I didn't have a lot of reason to disagree with him - his tastes seem to have run in the same vein as mine - and he'd seen so much more than me - or almost anyone - that there wasn't much profit to be had in disagreeing with him. There was, however (and still is, as long as the writing is online, or if it is published), great profit to be had in his writing. He shared the breadth of his knowledge, writing about films from everywhere, his essays clear, sharp - he tells you what the film is, what's in it, what it's worth - his reviews feel definitive.

He shaped the nature of the blog with those writings. He and Sam made a somewhat odd pairing - Sam is almost impossibly outgoing and enthusiastic - Allan could definitely be abrasive when he wanted - but they complimented each other. (You can get a good picture of it from Allan's tribute to Sam - Sam's personality, Allan's, and Allan's writing style - his clarity, his directness, his dry understated wit - I know both of them better from reading it.) I sometimes picture their blog as being like a playground, where an ongoing pick up ball game is going on: Sam's there telling everyone, of course you can play! everyone can play! - and Allan's always there as well, saying, But you better have game.... A lot of us have contributed there - and I don't think I'm alone in feeling like whatever you publish there better be up to the standards of the rest. You better have game...

And so... It is Friday, after all, and I have my traditions to uphold. So let's give the video portion of this post to Gene Wilder: with his most famous song....

And a bit of soft shoe from Young Frankenstein....

And a wild card - Soop! of the EEEveneing! from Alice in Wonderland...

Friday, August 26, 2016

Music SciFi Baseball

The dog days of summer roll along - we're getting down to the end. I don't have a lot to say - really feeling the humidity, and getting way too lazy because of it. Out in thew world - plenty of good stuff at Wonders in the Dark's science fiction countdown, still only in the 50s - long way to go, and all of it good. The Olympics are over, soccer is starting up in Europe, baseball is moving along, Red Sox in a dead heat with Toronto and (almost) Baltimore, with none of them looking likely to either run off with it or disappear. That's almost the only race out there this year - other than the Dodgers and Giants and some wild card drama, most of the leads are pretty safe. Still - September should be interesting.

I could write about politics, but other than the endless (and mostly fruitless) efforts to prove that Hillary Clinton is something more sinister than a successful career politician, or the endless proof that Donald Trump is playing a fascist as part of a scheme to sell merch, I don't see much point.

So it's music. Ten random songs, eh?

1. Gentle Giant - Raconteur Troubadour
2. Loren Connors - Moonyean No 7
3. The Germs - Throw it Away
4. The Heptones - Message from a Black Man
5. Sex Pistols - No Feelings
6. Beach Boys - I Just Wasn't Made for these Times
7. Theoretical Girls - Nato
8. Pere Ubu - Busman's Holiday
9. Woody Guthrie - Washington Talkin' Blues
10. Fairport Convention - Crazy Man Michael

Video? How about the Pistols, with a sweet little love song?

Or maybe Brian Wilson and company:

Or Fairport Convention doing Crazy Man Michael, 2010:

Friday, August 19, 2016

Are We Not Men?

Happy Friday. My band of the month post this month is pretty much pre-empted by the two long film posts - but the last one was half a music post anyway, so here's the other half.

The Criterion edition of Island of Lost Souls has a very nice interview with Gerry Casales and Mark Mothersbaugh, talking about the film and their experiences of it, and including a film, featuring Secret Agent Man and Jocko Homo. It's a feature worth getting the DVD for (though only part of what is on there.) It's not on the web - but I summarized it in the Island of Lost Souls post... It's good stuff.

Fortunately the Devo films are online: so here's Secret Agent Man (with some industrial ruin, masks and beast men):

And Jocko Homo - every man woman and mutant on this planet will know the truth about de-evolution!

And maybe a bit more. Here'sBruce Conner's film for Mongoloid:

And a live bonus version of Mongoloid:

As for Pere Ubu: here's a live cut of Heart of Darkness, with stories. Ascribing the lyrics all to Raymond Chandler - wherever they came from, the lyrics are dense with literary and film allusion, which really was how Thomas worked in the 70s. This sounds very great, though you can't get the lyrics exactly...

So here's audio only, the single version:

Folk music of the urban pioneer movement: two parts of an interview with Thomas, talking about the band - and Cleveland, in terms that get to the congruence with Island of Lost Souls - the decay and downfall of the rust belt: at what point did those Aztec and Mayan cities become ruins? "Witnessing the death of a city, moving to ruins" - "this is the unloved thing"...

Part 1:

Part 2: and Utopia - rock music as utopia lost - "too stubborn to change our ideas and too stupid to quit":

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Island of Lost Souls

Cross posted at Wonders in the Dark.

The Island of Lost Souls is another of those films that might be more horror and adventure yarn than science fiction, though it is certainly science fiction. The basic plot is SF - a mad scientist in his lair, short-cutting evolution with surgery and cellular manipulation, creating monsters to roam the world - though none of this is given a lot of weight. Dr. Moreau's fictional science is treated as the given of the story, and they move on from there. But the film is also science fiction at a more significant level. The horror themes (monsters, body horror, the slippages of identity and so on) run alongside themes more associated with science fiction: man vs. nature; science's attempts to control nature, with mixed results; the question of progress, whether progress is necessarily an improvement, whether it is reversible, and so on. These themes run all through the film, they are embedded in its style as much as its story; the story, the film, present a microcosm of dystopia, and a dystopia very much made by human attempts at science. Its science fiction is wrapped around its horror tropes and vice versa - working very well at both.

Criterion's edition of the film contains an interview with Gerry Casales and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, taking about the film's influence on their ideas and music, its relevance to 1970s Akron, and so on. What did they see in it? They talk about Ghoulardi (who showed it on late night television); they talk about Kent State (where they were students at the time of the shootings); they talk about de-evolution, about the film and its look (its masks, shadows, monsters) and its themes, and what it meant to them. They mention a strange fact - how this film set on a lost jungle island in the south seas looks like what's outside their doors - 5 o'clock at the Goodyear plant, says Mothersbaugh. It's true - the film has a strong dose of German expressionism in its veins, and the beast men emerging from one of Moreau's stone doors and passing a wall where their shadows loom as they shuffle out of the shot, bent knees and backs, look like factory workers shuffling out after their shifts. The same image turns up in another 70s era rust belt song, Pere Ubu's "Heart of Darkness": "Image object illusion, go down to the corner, where none of the faces fit a human form, nothing I see there isn't deformed, maybe in a secret lab works Dr. Moreau" - it's less the images of deformity that catch you, than the beginning - go down to the corner - this is what it looks like, now, today, Cleveland in the 70s.

It's that congruence between the film and Akron and Cleveland in the 70s - the rust belt, as it started to come completely apart (those Ohio cities getting a head start on what would later wreck Detroit and places like that - Cleveland was a byword for post-industrial doom in the 70s, with its burning rivers and whatnot) - that really marks the science fiction elements and importance of Island of Lost Souls. Look at what those bands took from it: the notion of de-evolution, the decay and despair of their cities in the 70s, the dehumanization of factory work, especially as it started to go wrong. The film is about Dr. Moreau's efforts to mimic millions of years of evolution on the operating table, efforts that however successful, always come apart, as the "stubborn beast flesh" keeps coming back. But it's also about that atavism as a universal problem - and Devo and Pere Ubu (particularly, and rather specifically) saw how that story applies to more than Moreau's monsters, it applies to all of us, to civilization itself. This might be even more explicit in the book, which extends the ending quite some time - Moreau dies and the beast men (and the castaway, Prendick, ( as he's called in the book)) carry on, the beasts reverting to form, Prendick going a bit native himself. Both the book and film are about decay and degeneration - de-evolution; they are about the dark places in the world, and they make it clear enough that the dark places are everywhere, not just remote jungles. (David Thomas picking up on the connections between Wells' book and Conrad's Heart of Darkness, name dropping Moreau in a song named for Conrad's novel.) Both bands take this as a departure point, and make the links explicit - the story of Island of Lost Souls is taking place here and now, they say. We are all beast men.

The same themes are strong enough in the film. Obviously, Moreau's monsters revert to form when he doesn't subject them to constant torture, but it isn't just them that devolve. The same things happen in the outside world. Captain Davies, who rescues, then abandons Parker (the castaway's name in the film), is hardly better than an animal himself - he is certainly less civilized than M'Ling. He's a drunk and a bully, attacking weaker people, getting petty vengeance on Parker, then lying to Ruth, while trying to make a pass at her. But when he's called before the consul, he bows and scrapes and squirms like the beast men in their village cowering before Moreau. He cringes before the Law as much as they do - and is even quicker to abandon its discipline when he can't see the whip.

And within the story, on the island, the theme of nature swallowing man's attempts to control it is ubiquitous. The jungle swallows Moreau's compound - a big stone building being overgrown by monstrous plants. Everything is decaying - or, put another way, nature is thriving, and destroying human civilization. Though then again - it's not just nature: it's nature, warped by human intervention - it's Moreau's monstrous orchids and asparagus overgrowing his house. That's an important point - the film doesn't exactly show a battle between man and nature, nature overcoming man: it shows man (particularly man trying to master nature) and nature as completely tangled up with one another. The jungle (natural and unnatural) invades Moreau's compound and the beast men come and go, in spite of Moreau's security; and Moreau imposes his will on the beast men. He made them in the House of Pain - he forces the law on them, making them (in a sense) more ethical than actual men. (How many men refuse to eat meat? or shed blood?) He carries the law to the jungle, even as the jungle invades the house. And really - the house itself is a space that proves almost complete open to everything. Dr. Moreau does not have a secret lab in this film - the House of Pain is right there, down the hall from where Parker is supposed to stay, nothing stops him from running into it unbidden. Of course there is nothing hiding it - the screams from the House of Pain are audible everywhere on the island. And so it goes: the interior of the house is easily visible from outside; Ouran has no problem getting into the house; the beasts are able to chase Moreau into the house at the end - partly because the others left the doors open, so he could return if he needed to. But their attempts to give him an escape route gives the beasts an entry point. There are no real barriers here to anything.

The early thirties were a golden age for horror films - many of them drawn from literature, especially from the late Victorian period: Dracula, Wells' books (this and the Invisible Man, notably), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's an interesting fact that those books, and the others being adapted about the same time, like Frankenstein, were themselves hybrids of horror and science fiction. Those genres weren't quite defined as genres when the books were written (more like, they were the books that defined the genres) - but it's a striking combination. Science fiction was grounds for horror in the late Victorian period: they went together easily. Even the one book that isn't really science fiction at all, Dracula, is packed with science and technology. It has wireless and blood transfusions and telegrams and modern travel - but it also treats its supernatural material in an almost scientific way. Its heroes are doctors, who treat the strange events they see scientifically, taking careful notes, monitoring the health of their patients and so on. The chief hero, Van Helsing, is more scientist than mystic himself, for all his willingness to believe in the supernatural. He treats Dracula like he would a natural phenomenon - study him, find his strengths and weaknesses - assume, always, that there are discoverable rules behind what he can do - and in the end, defeat him with, well, science.

In its adaptations, Universal tended to lean closer to the horror side of things. There is a pretty strong thematic unity to their films, at least the high end ones - the James Whale films, films like The Mummy. Those films are very much about the connections between the monsters and us. They are full of sympathetic monsters - monsters as victims - a not very strongly disguised sense that we are getting the whole story backwards. (That's where Frankenstein takes us - book and films; the creature is far more admirable than the creator, or most of the humans around them.) They are made in a way that rewards a kind of double perspective: the immediate thrill of the plot, the shocks, the horrors of the monster as something hideous and dangerous to be defeated - and the hidden (not always all that well hidden) sense of the monster as victim, monster as a projection of the heroes, or of us, or of some different kind of marginalized group. (Gay or foreign or artistic or disabled, or whatever it is.) This is extremely common in the Universal horror pictures.

Paramount's entries aren't quite the same. I suppose on the surface, they're close enough - they're really looking for all the sex and violence they can pack in, all the sensationalism and horror they can find. Which is there in spades. Beyond that, they are less consistent. (Thinking, here, mainly about the two great adaptations, this and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Jekyll and Hyde, of course, makes the divided allegiances of the Universal films explicit: the hero and villain are the same man. Duality is depicted directly - two sides of one character, rather than two ways of reading the characters. Island of Lost Souls is even more straightforward - Moreau is pure evil. Fascinating, strange, almost seductive evil, but still, unambiguous. And the monsters are monsters - though not quite so unambiguously evil. It's clear who is to blame - they were all made, and made to be the way they were. This is clear enough in the film: Parker calls the panther girl "tragic" - Lugosi's speeches are to the point. He is right: they are not men - not beasts - things! In this, it is a bit like Freaks - though the freaks are always the good guys (even when they get their vengeance). Here? well - Lota does nothing wrong, and is consistently wronged; M'Ling is loyal and decent; the Pig Man is always benign. And Lota and M'Ling go beyond this, beyond anything the humans do, both giving their lives for others.

What it comes to is that where Universal's best horror films put most of the ambiguity and thematic weight on the characters, Island of Lost Souls puts most of the weight into the story, and the situation. And that, I suppose might be the aspect of the film that most clearly distinguishes it as science fiction. It creates a world, self-contained and detailed, that starts with our world, and changes it. What if this was different? my god - what if you could do this? It creates a world where these wonders are true - gives them at least a hand-waving natural explanation - and then works through the consequences. The world it creates is one that mirrors our own - bringing in real issues from the world (vivisection, say), genetic and surgical experimentation (Dr. Mengele graduated med school about the time this came out - fiction coming to reality in the not too distant future); it creates a microcosm of real world society - class conflict, colonialism, the relationships between labor and the rest of society, a parody of the Law, of religion, and so on; and it sets it in motion and plays it out. It's a world, of course, that goes to ruin - it is hard to imagine science fiction in 1932 being anything except dystopian. If you were trying to show the tendency of the world at large in a film - it wasn't likely to get better.... And they did it all so well - too well, apparently, as the film bombed in 1932, outraged censors everywhere, and was banned or butchered for decades to come. But still out there, on late night TV in Ohio, influencing a new generation of dystopian utopians... (Sons of Ghoulardi? a joke I can't avoid - because the actual son of Ernie Anderson, Paul Thomas A, might well count as another son. Speaking of influence: how many of PT Anderson's characters could be read as beast men, of a sort? But especially, Freddy Quell in The Master - who's barely better than an animal when Lancaster Dodd gets him - is civilized - but then leaves, and starts to return to his original form.... why not?)

And so. I haven't said a lot about the film here, beyond alluding to its virtues. It has Charles Laughton almost supernaturally good; a fine supporting cast; it features gorgeous German style photography; the sets are fantastic - great looking, and thematically rich (shadows and dark doorways and windows, bars on the windows, giant tree limbs reaching into the house, vines twisting into the house, blending inside and outside); the direction, by the mostly anonymous Erle C. Kenton is worthy of it all - many cleverly composed and directed scenes, and the fine acting, and tight editing. A very great film, indeed.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Things to Come

Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark.

Things to Come, released in 1936, a collaboration between H. G. Wells, Alexander Korda, William Cameron Menzies, and a host of illustrious others, is a bit of an odd duck. Gorgeous looking, with stunning imagery (pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and utopian), even more stunning montage sequences, fantastic music, and - well, a star-studded cast, doing what they can - and preachy, static, abstract, with characters designed to Make Points, all of it Deadly in Earnest and political - all at once. It's a case of too many cooks - creating a wild pot luck of - metaphors...

Try again:

The best way to look at it is to realize that it is an advertisement. Propaganda. An advertisement - for Wells' book (The Shape of Things to Come), though probably more for Wells' ideas, his political schemes. The concept of the book is that it is a transcription of a history book from 2105 or 6 that an otherwise very clever man attached to the League of Nations has dreamed of reading over the past few years, writing down as much as he remembers in the morning. He told HG Wells about it, then died, in 1930 - Wells got the notes together and made them into a book, and when the events of 1930-33, described in the dream book, all proved true, Wells decided to publish it (in 1933 or so). The film, then, is an adaptation of this book - given some cinematic touches (it is a book of history, dry, rather impersonal history at that), like characters and drama - but not a lot. The characters are types, put in typical situations, where they make speeches to one another....

But as an advertisement, for the book, and the ideas, the style is perfectly natural. Like ads and propaganda, it may have characters and stories, but they are distinctly abstract - types, there to state the ideas they are advertising, directly and explicitly. "15 minutes can save you 15% on car insurance;" "we don't approve of independent sovereign states." These people and stories, most of the time, are completely swallowed in the technical displays around them. The technical displays of Things to Come certainly swallow its characters. It is monumental and grand, and dominated by its montage sequences - spectacular montage sequences, brilliantly stitched together series' of beautifully staged and shot images, tightly edited to the music. They are dazzling: the opening Christmas/War montage - the sequence of the start of the war - the bombing of Everytown - a couple sequences showing the long progress of the war - and an orgy of machine porn (I mean, what else are you going to call it?) showing the building of the new, underground, utopian Everytown.

It's a style that shows up on TV every 10 minutes or so; you can watch a dozen 30 second examples while you wait for Michael Phelps to win another medal. In 1936 it was a bit more novel, but not unknown. It's approach - monumental imagery, dazzling montage, human beings as types, and treated as elements in the design, and, indeed, an overpowering sense of design to the whole endeavor - appears in many propaganda films of the day. Triumph of the Will has it; Eisenstein's films have it, especially in the 20s - as do many other films, experimental films, city symphony films, as well as straight up propaganda. Most of the techniques turn up in mainstream films as well (plenty of montage sequences anywhere you want to look in the 30s, some of them as abstract as anything here) - what sets it apart, and links it to propaganda then and advertisement since is both the reduction of humanity to Points to be Made, and that pervasive sense of design.

Because for all the clash of styles and egos going into the making of the film, it is a carefully, and completely, designed film. Look at it: the stunning sets, the careful arrangements of objects (including human beings) in front of the camera, the superb editing - but also look at the overall structure. The film is careful in its symmetries - repeating situations, images, etc, from one section to another. As an example - the symmetry between the bombing/gas attack on Everytown that marks the beginning of the end of the old world, and the "gas of peace" attack that issues in the era of the air dictatorship, the beginning of the new world. Repeated situations and reminiscent shots:

The parallelism is certainly helped by the fact that the same actors keep showing up in new roles, that embody the same types (Raymond Massey the hero, Edward Chapman as his cautious friend) - they get to repeat their conversations in new clothes and on different sets, with a different young friend as interlocutor:

Advertisement, then. And what is it advertising? The political idea of H. G. Wells, basically, in the form of a prediction of future history. Wells took them seriously, he had high hopes for the film as a way of spreading his ideas - it's worth giving them some attention, I think. What is Wells saying? He tells the story of the next 100-200 years to describe what he thinks will happen, and what he thinks should happen - this is prescription as much as prediction. He has some strong theories about how the world should work, spelled out in detail in the book, indicated int he film. What are they?

1. The World needs a single world government to allow humanity to develop into what they should be.
2. The history of the world is the history of smaller units of people forming larger units - individuals, to families, to tribes, to communities - to both larger political units, and other units, such as ethnic and linguistic groups, religions and so on.
3. At every step of this evolution, existing units resist the development of larger units - hanging on to their own privileges and powers.
4. To get to #1, you need an elite of scientists, technicians, intellectuals who share the values and goals of the World State, and who work not just to implement it but to educate the population in its precepts - humanity is what it teaches itself to be.

Those assumptions drive the story he tells. He believes that existing systems - the nation-state and capitalism, mainly, as well as religious and ethnic forces - have reached the limits of their ability to cope with the world and are starting to break down. (He wrote this in 1933 - this thesis is well supported.) He thinks - and this is going to cut right to the core of what he gets wrong in these predictions - that the existing Sovereign States will resist any attempt to replace them with a World State, and Capitalism will resist any attempt to change economic forms. Therefore, they need to be destroyed - though he is not a revolutionary, thinking they will be overthrown. He thinks they will destroy themselves. (Not a stretch, in 1933.) Once they collapse, the World State can rise to take their place. There will be a time of sorrow first - but science and technology will survive, and will recover, and implement a world based on - well, Wells' ideas. He doesn't think this will be easy - he shares with the Communists the belief that there must be a period of dictatorship, not of proletariat, but of intellectuals and technicians - the air dictatorship, Wings over the World in this story. This dictatorship will wither away - he's clearer than the Communists on the means: a complete education reform will turn everyone into a little superman. They will need no exceptional leaders because everyone will be exceptional. Utopia!

That's what he expects (and wants): how does he think it might happen? War will come - in the book he says it will come in Europe in 1939, between Germany and Poland over the Danzig corridor. A pretty safe bet in 1933, probably, but still, he got that right. It's interesting that the film changes this: the book is rather precise about who will invade who, who might gas who, which cities would be sterilized, what areas made uninhabitable, and so on. The film abandons this precision for a very English Everytown, that suffers all the misfortunes of the coming troubles. The war is just as vague: no cause is given for it, and there isn't a lot of detail about what happens afterwards - just those montage sequences. The book does not stint on such details. The war, in both film and book, quickly becomes dominated by air power and chemical weapons - the book offers plenty of detail about the type of gas used, its effects, who did what to whom, and so on. This war lasts decades - and is accompanied by economic collapse (the "Hoover Slump", they call it in the book, lasting 30 years.) Then comes disease - the "wandering sickness" - which is more obviously brought on by all the chemicals in the air in the book. All this - the collapse of the economy, plus the war, plus the disease that obliterates half the planet, leaves the world in a state of barbarism and ruin - nations shattered, reduced to half comic local warlords like The Chief, ripe for picking by heroic flyboys.

None of this happened, of course. The only thing he got right about the war was when it would start and where. And the aftermath, in a sense: Germany and Japan after WWII looked quite a bit like his post-apocalyptic world, for a while at least. But when they were rescued, it wasn't by Raymond Massey is a funny hat - it was by George Marshall and the good old US of A.

So what did he miss? One big thing is that he took his moment in history as the next-to-last moment in history, a mistake a lot of prognosticators make. He describes the evolution of larger and larger units of people, up to the modern state, and to ideas about transnational organizations like the League of Nation - but assumes those organizations and agreements will be completely opposed by existing States. But compare it to what happened. Start with World War II - he makes two big mistakes in predicting how it will go, militarily. One is that he discounts the importance of tanks in the war to come - that is, like many others, thinking the next war will be a repeat of the last. (He's clear about that; the film adopts it completely, showing its battle scenes as very much like WWI, even with tanks.)

But the other mistake is that he thinks the war will be fought primarily with chemical weapons. He was wrong, and wrong because the combatants followed a treaty, the Geneva Protocol against chemical warfare (and most of the world has to this day). It's almost shocking that they did - the participants in WWII didn't show a lot of restraint in their willingness and ability to kill people. It's hard to fault Wells for not seeing that coming. (It's also worth noting that the real WWII ended up killing more people in 6 years than Wells imagines it would kill directly in a decade. He didn't quite seem to realize the devastating power of high explosives and incendiaries; nor did he imagine anything like the Holocaust.) And in the aftermath of the war, we see again that States were able to adapt more effectively than Wells imagines. His imaginary war leads to decades of primitivism, poverty, disappearance of technology and culture; the real war led to a decade or so of acute suffering in the losing countries - then a miraculous recovery, in those countries, and technological innovation everywhere. Though these miracles weren't exactly miracles - they were driven by the American money, which was driven both by competition with the Soviet Union, and new forms of cooperation among other States. Wells didn't imagine intermediate forms between existing nations and the World State - but what developed in the Cold War was not far from two competing versions of World States.

What this adds up to is that Wells imagines a much more manichean future than the one we have had. He makes the same mistakes in economics - he doesn't think capitalist countries will go off the gold standard and spend money ti put people to work - but they did; not enough to end the Depression, but enough to mitigate it. He imagines it will be all or nothing - the world must unite, or it will be destroyed. Instead - nothing happened universally. States found ways to cooperate in some areas, not in others. They wouldn't avoid warfare, but they were able to avoid using chemical weapons (mostly) - and after Nagasaki, have managed to avoid using nukes as well. States have split into smaller units (all the countries invented out of nothing after WWI have reverted to smaller units), while creating new and different international units. Businesses operate globally, they compete with States; religion fades, or becomes more radical, or less radical, depending on where and who you are. It is a hodge podge. And really, that hodge podge is more predictable than the all or nothing systems Wells wrote about. He should have known better. He liked to think he was a historian - but the first principal of history is that everything is contingent; everything depends on everything else. His passion for science is also real - but it's clear his great love was for biology. His imagery and his systems are all organic ones, based on evolution - and he should know: evolution is messy. It does not move in a straight line, or along clearly marked choices. It's a tangle. And human beings are an incredibly successful species because they are incredibly adaptable.

Finally (I hope - this essay is turning interminable!), let's take a couple paragraphs to think about the technology of 2036. It's interesting that in this world, we have been to the moon, and in his, they are just preparing to get there. Maybe this is what you get for not having the Cold War, which certainly chased us to the moon. Or maybe it's because Wells' air dictatorship decided to rebuild earth before doing anything else. But in this world, the two didn't compete. The US made its biggest push to space in the 1960s - roughly the same time as it made its biggest push to solve its social problems. Both of which, space and social progress, were pretty well ended by the Vietnam war: you know - maybe Wells had a point about war....

Anyway - we don't have anything quite like that house building things up there - but we do have Apple watches - smaller and better than Raymond Massey's...

Which leads me to one last point about technology and culture. Wells makes some odd predictions in his book: he writes about the horrors of the wars, and the collapse after the war, and he says that they left very little record. Few photographs, few memoirs (compared specifically to the masses of prose generated by the first World War.) He writes about the disappearance of cinema, the near disappearance of radio - in general, he imagines humanity going silent over those years. Now - one of the big things he didn't think of was the explosion of information technology in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. (Noted by David Kalat on the commentary track of Criterion's DVD.) The filmmakers imagine some of it - that watch; some fine flat screen TVs, including one covering an entire city square; live television broadcasts to the public square. But back to what people write about - even without computers and blogs, people documented WWII quite extensively, even the most horrible parts of it. Wells imagines that the world will be too horrible for anyone to bear to write about, and that basic communication technology will disappear; but nothing he imagined is as horrible as the Holocaust, and think of how documented that is. Think of the lengths people went to to document their experiences in other places, wars, gulags, genocides. It is odd to think of a writer underestimating the human need to record ourselves - but that obsession to remember, and to recall what has been hidden, is very fundamental to what we are.

And Wells clearly understood that. He just tended to segregate the intellectuals from the rest a bit too much. Though I suppose he knew better: think how proud Roxana is that she can read. Wells almost gets a real story on screen in this part of the film - or maybe, Ralph Richardson and Margaretta Scott get some story on screen, some human beings. Especially Scott, though, who gets a bit better material than Richardson to work with, and makes Roxana into the conscience of the film. She's what's at stake in the film - the one who could have chosen between the Chief's violence and the scientists and mechanics' hopes. If the Wings over the World guys hadn't just gassed everyone...

In the book, there is almost none of this - but there is the artist, Theotocopulos, who is a much more appealing character in the book. He gets his own chapter, drawn from his diary (this is from the mid-20th century, the hey day of the air dictatorship), devoted mostly to complaints about the dictator's monumentalist tastes in art and architecture, but also to some thoughts on art and love and humanity. He is presented as a critic of the regime, but one who makes sense - the film version is almost incoherent. Railing against progress - meaning what? (Passworthy comes up with much better arguments against the space gun than Theotocopulos does.) And then he leads an angry mob against the scientists' windmill - basically undermining the whole point of Wells' political hopes. These World State geniuses are supposed to educate the masses to the point where they are all truly free individuals - no more demagogues and angry mobs, no more revolutions or needs for revolutions. Instead - the film reverts to what was getting to be a hoary cliche even then: get out the pitchforks! It's a disappointment, and looks even worse if you've read the book, and seen how the air dictatorship is overthrown there. (Basically given a gold watch and sent off to write their memoirs.)

Of course the film really just drops the mob at the end, and gives us more of Massey's speeches. But in fairness, he does cut a fine figure, silhuoetted against the stars.