Shack Out on 101

November 2, 2013

Are you a traitor?

Thanks to the savage guy, I have another cinema oddity to savor and comment on – Shack Out on 101 from 1955.  Everyone who comments on this film, including me, agrees that it is bizarre.  And strangely entertaining, despite the incredible stuff it contains.  Most call it a red-scare noir, but I don’t quite see the noir aspects of it, except in a very watered-down state.  I can say, however, I know of nothing else like it!

Nearly the entire action takes place in a run down diner on Highway 101 – once again I find myself thinking of the classical dramatic unities!  Anything on the beach of southern California gives me a nostalgic tug, but there are precious few outside shots in this film:  just a few scenes on the beach, including the opening which is much talked about.

We see a woman in a bathing suit lying in the sun at the surf’s edge; then we see Slob (Lee Marvin), talking into a cellphone…oops, that’s a shell-phone!  No, he’s just listening to the sea in a shell, with the coastal bluffs as a backdrop.

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Then he swoops onto the woman and kisses her as she violently resists him.  It’s all in “fun,” they know each other, and he’s just giving her a major hard time and tease.  He runs off laughing as she fumes.  When he reaches the porch of the shack where they live and work slinging hash, he takes her underwear off the clothes line and grinds it into the dirt.  This will occasion much talk indoors about how he is now obligated to buy her, Kotty, a new petticoat, the meanie!

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Slob’s faux assault on Kotty prefigures some brutally real violence between them later on, but for now, the movie moves on between comedy, farce, and absurd Cold War espionage.  Slob is part of a spy network, passing on secrets gleaned from fellow travelers at the nuclear research lab up the road.  His boss, George (Keenan Wynn) is not part of the ring.  Nor is George’s friend Eddie, a traumatized WWII vet who can’t get over his experience on D-Day.  The two of them actually have some pretty affecting straight talk about what that’s all about.  Through it all, some mighty strange stuff plays out on stage at the beanery.

George and Slob get into comparing their physiques during a work-out.

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Marvin is all over the place in this film, really hamming it up at times.  Here he reveals to George that what he really desires is a “nice, big neck.”

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They go on to comparing their legs, and ask an impartial judgment. Didn’t that sort of thing start a long war in the old days?

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Kotty knows better than to pick a winner, and besides, nobody has better legs than she does.  That’s that!

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George is determined to get Eddie to beat his fears of blood, violence, adventure, and even killing of fish (!) that the war left him with.  He’s planning a snorkeling adventure in Mexico which they act out in front of everyone present.  Yes, they do look like aliens…

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Meanwhile, Kotty has a romance going on with the professor from the nuke lab.  At first, it seems that he is in with the spies, but of course, that’s a cover.  He tenderly supports Kotty’s ambitions to take a civil service exam so that she can get a desk job in the government doing something important.  Boy, have ideas changed!

Being sort of noir, there’s a mirror, a double-identity.  And that hand! All the passion of Venus is there!

Cut from the love scene to Slob and his courier in the kitchen.  Right after the kiss, the guy shoves a fish at Slob’s mouth.

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Here’s where it get’s pretty weird.  We are definitely into homo-erotic territory here – look at the grins on their faces as they agree to start up their favorite game…

Nothing these guys enjoy more than a little dance with a rag while they take turns pummeling each other.

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About this time, Kotty realizes that something is going on around here. These “truck drivers,” always teasing and coming on to her, have awfully soft hand for working slobs.

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Eventually, she has a confrontation with Slob when he realizes his cover is blown.   Now the violence is for real.  First he threatens her repeatedly with a nasty knife, but she’s tough – she doesn’t blink. Then – incredible! – he throttles her and smashes her head out of the window.  Then he starts garroting her with some underwear!  After all the kooky stuff in this film, this scene is genuinely shocking.

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Of course, the good guys win in the end.  You knew that already, right?


Lovin’ that bomb

December 30, 2008

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The New York Times has an article today under the headline, Soviets Stole Bomb Idea From U.S., Book Says. This follows on an earlier article in the Science Times that discussed two books on this topic, Hidden Travels of the Atomic Bomb. This latter article was an egregious example of the sloppy writing that so often graces the pages of the NYTimes’ Science section.

The historical and political context of the investigations is summarized in the second article this way:

In 1945, after the atomic destruction of two Japanese cities, J. Robert Oppenheimer expressed foreboding about the spread of nuclear arms.

They are not too hard to make,” he told his colleagues on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, N.M. “They will be universal if people wish to make them universal.”

That sensibility, born where the atomic bomb itself was born, grew into a theory of technological inevitability. Because the laws of physics are universal, the theory went, it was just a matter of time before other bright minds and determined states joined the club. A corollary was that trying to stop proliferation was quite difficult if not futile.

But nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth.

Oppenheimer concluded that international cooperation to reign in the awful power of atomic energy in weapons was the only sensible political course.  He opposed the development of new, stronger, and more plentiful nuclear weapons as a useless attempt to maintain the USA’s temporary nuclear monopoly.  Naturally, he was vigorously opposed, and eventually destroyed by people like Edward Teller, who always had a bigger and better bomb in mind, and were convinced that we had to build them to terrorize the Russians into obediance.  And if they wouldn’t obey, well, we would just nuke ‘em, and win!

So, latter day claims that the Russians only got the bomb because of nasty spies tend to reinforce the anti-Oppenheimer camp.  “See, he was naive!  If it weren’t for the spies, we’d still be the only one with the bomb…” Preserving our nuclear monopoly was possible and sensible.  President Truman expressed this view rather simply – he predicted the Russians would never get the bomb.  These books are simply another neo-con effort to rewrite history.

Yes, the Russians had spies that gave them information.  This is indisputable.  Yes, this may have expedited their progress on the A- and H-bombs.  Notice, however, that Oppenheimer never said exactly when others would get the weapon, just that they would if they truly wanted to.  (Perhaps one reason not everyone has them is that they don’t want them, for good reasons!  Not to mention the cost!)  The fact that there were spies doesn’t mean at all that he was wrong.

As is often the case in the weird world of the NYTimes, a line in the second article totally undercuts the meaning of its lead:

Alarmingly, the authors say one of China’s bombs was created as an “export design” that nearly “anybody could build.” The blueprint for the simple plan has traveled from Pakistan to Libya and, the authors say, Iran.

Look, either the bombs are really hard to make, or they are not.  You can’t have it both ways.


Red Scare Irony

November 29, 2008

allen

Did the Joe McCarthy Red Scare produce anything good?

The other night I was at a gathering of people who were mostly quite a bit older than I am.  I spent some time talking with a fellow who has endowed a local cultural organization, the Puffin Foundation.  He’s a socialist from way back, and he was blacklisted during the 50’s.  That meant that many jobs were totally closed off to him, and I guess he didn’t have the inclination or resources to set himself up as an independent professional.  So he did things the good old American CAPITALIST way, and he went into business.

Turns out, this commie had a good head for capitalism, and he ended up getting rich.   He gave a lot of his gains to his workers in benefits, stock ownership and stuff like that, but he still had  plenty of filthy lucre from his exploitation of their labor left over, so he set up a foundation.  It hosts interviews, art exhibits, performances, and lectures, and it is a wonderful resource for the region.

What was his business?  Machine screws!  As an engineer and sometimes tinkerer, I know all about Allen screws, those fasteners with the hexagonal shaped hole that tightly fits a bent piece of metal that you insert to torque the screw down. They fascinated me as a kid by their precision.  Such pieces are the foundation of industrial society.  Before they existed, fasteners were made by hand, individually.  Then someone built a metal lathe to create them more precisely, but of course, that lathe was built with hand-machined fasteners.  That was the end of the artisan screw, however.  From then on, machines were used to make machine parts from which more machines could be made, bigger and better.  Without that, industrial capitalism would have stalled in its tracks.

He broke the monopoly on fastener distribution in the USA.  How’s that for a pinko!  I hope Tailgunner Joe is turning over in his grave.


WR: Mysteries of the Organism

March 7, 2008

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Raise your hand if you have seen this film.  Come on, I want to know who you are!  Send me a comment!  I saw this extradordinary work as a college student in the 70s – just that once – and I remembered it vividly.  I just bought it from the Criterion Collection of DVDs, and, to my delight, it is just as amazing as I recalled it from 30 years ago!

Directed by Dusan Makavejev in 1971, it earned him – his words – “a one-way ticket out of Yugoslavia.”  Remember-this is long before the Fall of Communism!  The film was banned in the East Block for years of course, and it is not widely seen or heard of in the West.  I posted about it briefly early in this blog. What is it?

I provide a brief outline with images of the film here.  It is an attempt to convey the visually and intellectually dazzling experience it provides.  For an excellent and lengthy description of the myriad ideas that crisscross throughout the film, visit this post on another blog.

The film begins as an investigation into the life of Wilhelm Reich (WR), focusing on his later years in America.  Reich was a member of Freud’s circle, but he was deeply interested in contemporary politics, appropriately terrified by the rise of Fascism, and a Communist.  Of course, with his belief in the connection between sexual repression and political movements, he couldn’t be a favorite son of The Party, and the Nazis reviled him as a perverted Jewish subversive.  Reich linked the repression of the sexual drive with the appeal of Fascism for the masses, and he was an advocate for free and open sexual education of youth.

Opening credits – still image of WR – shot of his Orgone Accumulator

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NYC waste incinerator – Reich on the way to prison – NYC streets 1970

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In his later days, Reich went rather mad.  He developed crackpot theories about cosmic orgone energy, which he believed was channeled by humans during sex. The Orgone Accumulator was a box he “invented” to capture and focus this blue energy for therapeutic purposes.  His books were banned, burned in New York, and he was tried and imprisoned through actions by the US FDA.  Meanwhile, in the grungy NYC of the 1970s, some strange bohemian types roam about and don clothing and paraphernalia of urban guerillas.

Title pages of works by and about Reich – WR memorial in the USA

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Local folks reminisce about the eccentric Mr. Reich – Cloud buster apparatus to manipulate
atmospheric cosmic orgone energy – Archival clip of the arrival of scientists arriving to meet with WR

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The film provides some background on the earlier career of WR, but focuses on his deranged later period. How much more deranged than the rest of us was he?  Was his insistence on the primacy of sexual force in human life nutty, or just common sense?  He was certainly a fish out of water in the USA, despite his conversion to conservative politics.  (He voted for Eisenhower).  Isn’t America filled with loonies like WR, setting up communes, founding Utopias, peddling revelation?

Milena’s story – Milena – Relaxing with a cigar and Karl Marx

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Milena’s appeal – Sexual polemic for proletariat – Comarade Stalin

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The fictional narrative of the film begins to be intercut with the documentary strand at this point. The satire, parody, visual and verbal irony are relentless.  The language and artistic cliches of orthodox state communism are hilariously skewered, while the psychological documentary side of the tale is pursued with segments of primal-scream therapy and New York Reichian therapists discussing the role of body language, “body armor” to Reich, in repressing sexuality.

Milena, the Yugoslavian heroine is devoted to the ideals of revolution in the personal and political realm.  She is a communist-feminist advocate of freedom, in love and work, but she has yet to find the right man with whom to build her personal sexual-socialist paradise.  Leaving her cramped apartment so her voluptuous roommate can have her romp with her latest boyfriend, she goes to the terrace to address the assembled workers on the need for sexual joy in communist revolution.  An annoying worker, who fancies himself eligible to be her lover, appears yet again.  Archival propaganda films of Father Stalin (played by a look-alike) are intercut, the monumental socialist-realist kitsch providing a bizarre and hilarious counterpoint to the action.

Meanwhile, back in NYC – At last, a love interest! – Milena smitten

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Back in NYC, the crazy guerilla wonders the streets, menacing with his M-16 to which he appears to have an overly passionate relationship.  Milena goes to an ice spectacular with friends and, lo! she finds the man of her dreams!  He is a god, and she is in love, at last!  The show is an absurd and showy concoction of kitsch – part Vegas, part Moscow – to the choral accompaniment of childish songs of praise to The Party.

Soviet Man, Soviet Hero, Soviet Hunk

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Milena approaches the lead skater – Vladimir Ilyich, like V. I. Lenin – and of course, he responds to her – she’s gorgeous, and so serious! After his makeup is off, he comes home with her to have some milk and cookies.  The two women fawn over him, so handsome! as he talks on, sonorous, serious stupidities falling from his tongue as if rehearsed.  Seeing a poster of Manhattan he says, of course, they have performed “miracles of production,” but they are unhappy, without our socialist souls.
What is that picture! - Communism means “in common” – Breakthrough?

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The working class is the subject of history – Death to Male Fascism! – Free Love!

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Vladimir notices a picture on the wall of Adolf Hitler sitting in the midst of a huge circle of admiring, adoring young women.  What is a beautiful young communist doing with that on the wall?  Milena explains that it is to illustrate how thoroughly the beautiful erotic impulse can be distorted and manipulated to frustrate the workers and to subjugate women to tyrannical rule of fascist males.  The portraits of Reich and Freud look down from the wall.  Do they approve?

Milena’s roommate – she left her clothes somewhere – brings the refreshments.  Let’s share, we are all communists! Vladimir explains that a communist must be incisive, sharp, like a scalpel…The wall breaks, someone is coming through! It’s that drunken worker again, so unlike the Adonis-Vladimir.  He sings and makes as if to march with his pickaxe and locks Vladimir in the armoire.  Cut to Milena:  She’s the only person in the frame…she’s holding the frame…she addresses US!

Releasing the Soviet Hero – Granny, Look! – It’s Stalin!

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Bohemian “artist” molding a penis – Stalin speaks!
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Milena frees her love from the closet – cut to a Soviet propaganda film:  all eyes turn to Comarade Stalin!  Then back again to weirdo NYC where we watch an artist do a plaster cast of a man’s erect penis so as to make a wax or plastic model of it. Turned out pretty well!  Back to Stalin!!
Last stand for fascist architecture? – Primal scream – Reach for the heights!

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Our weirdo urban guerrilla continues his maneuvers.  How fitting that he ends up in Lincoln Center, surely not an accident.  The style is reminiscent of Mussolini’s projects – totalitarian kitsch is a different kind of International Style. (Philip Johnson, who had a hand in the project, was quite sympathetic to the Nazis for a while…) We learn more about Reichian therapy and watch numerous women come into ecstatic contact with their inner-orgone, or at least breathe very heavily.  And finally, our urban warrior finds release with his beloved M-16 and sends off some celebratory rounds skywards.  Happiness is a warm gun!!

Cloud busters – He thinks only of THE REVOLUTION – Is he blind!

“Your people are so interesting,” he says. “And the women?” she asks.

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Back at Rancho Orgone,  the cloudbusters are manned by the intrepid cosmic seekers.  They look an awful lot like anti-aircraft guns, but they are designed to bring energy down to the earth, not to send destructive explosions up into the sky.  Milena and Vladimir take a romantic walk by the not so romantic riverside.  She tries, but he has eyes, ears, thoughts, only for the great revolution.  “To die for love is wasteful, romantic, bourgeois.  Brutally zoologic!” He lives only for his art in service to the glorious workers state!  Does he not see the palpitating beauty right in front of his nose, aching for him to take her into his arms and bring them both to a revolutionary, socialist, common, fruitful consumation?!!!  Is he blind?!  Alas, she realizes sadly, he may be just that.

She makes one last try…and, STALIN!

Eisenstein would be proud.

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She will try once more, desperately, without inhibition, to break through his emotional, intellectual, sensual armor and to let him know what she wants, what she needs, in no uncertain terms.  She reaches for him and…he SLAPS her! And we see… Comrade Stalin!  (How interesting – could this be a deliberate echo of the movie, Fail Safe?)  Stalin looks on coldly, with world-historical understanding (the choir music swells!)  The woman brings a supplication – he considers, will he grant it?  The world on his shoulders!

Enlightenment – Anger – Telling it like it is!

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She sees the truth now, the cosmic light energy of understanding is shed on her, through her.  She will set the record straight and she is terrifying in her righteous, socialist, revolutionary, feminist, truth-telling.  She lets that sniveling stuffed-shirt of the revolution have it with hits, verbal pummeling, and slaps.  She knocks his stupid hat off!

You want the revolution, but heaven forbid it should touch you!”  She really gives it to him! “What’s a baby? For a man, a second, then it’s the woman’s job!”  You want revolutionary violence, I’ll give it to you!  She denounces him, his party, the revolution, and the entire kitsch spectacle of his socialist art extravaganzas.

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At last, on his knees, he understands, she forgives and finds love…

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…But in the end, the energy released is too much for this repressed agent of the people’s revolution.  The male principle must reassert itself, achieve dominance and control of all impulses.  He cannot allow himself to run free.  The communist road must be followed!  The champion skater, tumbled low by love, uses his skate to decapitate Milena with one terrific blow.  Her head, examined in the morgue, begins to talk, to tell of her tragic experience with this “genuine Red fascist”. Meanwhile, Vladimir lets loose with a song of his sorrow. Her story will go on, and his.

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Science and Faith

August 29, 2007


October 25, 1945: The Oval Office

J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb, meets with Harry S. Truman, President of the United States:

…At one point in their conversation, Truman suddenly asked [Oppenheimer] to guess when the Russians would develop their own atomic bomb. When [Oppenheimer] replied that he did not know, Truman confidently said he knew the answer: “Never.”

from American Prometheus by Bird and Sherwin

Needless to say, (or is it needless?) events proved Truman completely wrong. It was obvious to anyone who thought about it for a minute that it was only a matter of time, and probably not much time.

And while we’re at it, Bertrand Russell is always good:

Belief in a Divine Mission is one of the many forms of certainty that have afflicted the human race.

- from Skeptical Essays

The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.

The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic. -

-An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish

Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.

- from Unpopular Essays


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