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.

shell phone

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!

violence0

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.

pecs

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.”

want a big neck

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?

best legs

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

winner

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…

frogmen

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.

from kiss to fish

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.

loving it1

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.

truck drivers with soft hands

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.

violence

violence2

violence3

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


Esa mitología cubana viejo…

October 16, 2012

[NOTE - 10/22:  On the news today, I heard a statement that Kennedy "quietly removed several obsolete missiles from Turkey" in exchange for the USSR turning backs its ships with nukes for Cuba.  More jingoistic spin.  If they were obsolete, why where they placed there (and in Italy) just the year before?

By calling them obsolete, the idea is conveyed that JFK gave up nothing significant, only making a gesture to help Kruschev save face. ]

An Op-Ed piece in the times today (The Price of a 50-Year Myth) examines those old myths of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and their destructive effect on subsequent American policy.  I’m not so sure about his teasing out of the policy implications, but the notes on the distortions of what actually happened during the crisis are illuminating.

JFK, for all his ideological bluster and image mongering, was a practical, some would say cynical, guy.  Maybe he was one of the ruling elite who did not believe his own propaganda.  He was willing to cut a deal to avoid a nuclear conflagration, and he did so.  After all, he provoked the crisis by placing nukes in Turkey, right up against the USSR border, something they regarded as threatening – wonder why? - so he took the option of removing the missiles in exchange for Krushchev turning back his ships headed with nukes to Cuba.  The article points out that the boats were thirty hours sailing time away from the US blockade when they turned back – not quite the eyeball to eyeball macho facedown of legend.  The writer thinks that the power-elite believed their own spin, and used it to justify future exercises in destructive brinksmanship. 

Well, brinksmanship was brought to the public eye by John Foster Dulles, and was a well established posture for dealing with the USSR, so the Cuban Missile Crisis was not its source.  And JFK, as William Manchester said, was almost as good at crisis management as crisis creation.  I give him credit for not caving to the militarist lunacy of advisors like General Curtis LeMay (a.ka. Colonel Jack Ripper.)  But the image of an American president who negotiates with a powerful adversary to avoid a crisis, and even backs down from a provocation, is not part of the American self-image of global swagger, so it has been covered over with political pabulum and secrecy.


Höfði House, Long After

August 21, 2012

This is the house where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986, effectively ending the Cold War.  As one who grew up during those days when nuclear annihilation was a daily, and real possibility, I had to visit.  Much as I detest Ronald Reagan, and all he stood for, I must credit him for having the independence to go against his advisers and make this meeting happen (more here).

As I mention in the post linked just above, Reagan, a movie man to his core, was moved to oppose his own advisors by a TV film, The Day After.

This a a photograph inside the house, but it almost looks like wax figures.  Now that would be an interesting installation!

The house is in an isolated spot by the bay in downtown Reykjavic, which probably was a major reason for selecting it.  It would have been easy to provide complete security for the building.  One of the meeting rooms.  The house used to be the French Consulate.


Engineers in Space

April 19, 2012

Apollo 13 tells the story of the unfortunate NASA mission as a straightforward disaster tale, anchored by Tom hanks as Jim Lovell, the resolutely understated hero.  I consider this part of my examination of The Engineer as Hero in movies:  a lot of pilots and astronauts are engineering graduates, and Houston Mission Control is a hive of that species.  Hanks plays the hero in Steve McQueen mode, but more approachable.  His values are rooted in family, and he reveals a streak of spiritualism when he recounts his lucky escape as a fighter pilot, “lead home” by a trail of phosphorescent algae in the wake of his mother ship.

The film was entertaining, but for me, ultimately a bit dull and flat: I am not engaged by celebrations of folksy heroism, and the fascination of space was lost in the Hollywood adventure story of man-and-machine, despite the commendable restraint exercised by the film maker.  Although this is clearly a celebration of  an American Everyman’s triumph, he leaves the sentimental gushing for the musical score and Lovell’s mother, who, on cue, declares that if “they could make a washing machine fly, my Jimmy could land it.”

I grew up watching space launches, building models of the LEM, and hearing the roar of what we thought were engine tests at Rocketdyne, in the industrial section of the San Fernando Valley. The gadgets and the stories were neat, but for me, the essential terrifying strangeness of space was what fascinated me.  David Bowie captures it in his song, Ground Control to Major Tom:

This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in my tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Just guys floating in the cosmic void, protected by a little tin can. Ron Howard has made a movie that could have been on an ocean liner, a mountain top, or an airplane coming in for a dangerous landing.  The archive footage of Walter Cronkite’s wonderment at the moonwalk conveys more of the magic of the enterprise than anything else in the film.  2001 is still the standard for man in space as far as I am concerned:  The shots of the space craft careening wildly through space seem hokey in comparison to the eerie progression of Kubrick’s machines.

Brave guys, those astronauts, and incredibly skilled and cool under pressure.  That’s how they picked ‘em.  And the presentation of the work of the engineers on the ground was fascinating:  the technology they had to work with is left in the dust by what a kid carries in his pocket today.   And the need to have thought out every contingency in advance, to have provided the pilots with manuals and pre-printed algorithms for calculating things that today a pocket calculator could do in a flash, and the enormous technical bureaucracy that supports this was nicely shown.

But maybe I’m the prisoner of my profession here.  I’d heard of the sequence in which the engineers figure out how to improvise a replacement air filter to keep the pilots alive as a thrilling and brilliant passage, but it seemed to me that they figured out the problem exactly the way you’d expect a bunch of committed, smart engineers to do it.  Engineers love to jerry rig stuff just to get it working.  It’s called ingenuity.  Still, you do get the sense that it took guts to think they could carry this sort of thing off.  And for what?  To show the Russians, of course.

The film endorses the heroic view of NASA, and seems wistful that the public lost interest after Armstrong walked on the moon.  The reduction of the program by budget cuts is presented as a foolish tragedy of policy myopia.  Lovell justifies continuing the program after Armstrong by asking what would have happened if no one had followed up on Columbus’ voyage.  Well…ask a Native American that question… Lovell believes it though, and one of the more affecting moments of the film is when he realizes he will never walk on the moon, and we see his dreams of what it would have been like.

There’s hardly any relationship between the moonshots and 1492, however, other than the skill and courage of the men involved. Columbus sought land, gold, and slaves.  Lovell sought personal and patriotic fulfillment.  The justification for NASA after beating the Russians was only science, and robots do more of it better, and far more cheaply, without heroics or tragedy.  We have enough of that on Earth anyway.


Rios Montt

January 31, 2012

News came that Rios Montt is to be tried in Guatemala for genocide.  During the early 1980s, with the support of our gallant Cold Warrior leader, Ronald Reagan, Montt took over the country and instituted a scorched earth campaign against so-called communist guerillas.  Scorched earth is a literal description, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed by the army, almost all of them members of indigenous Mayan tribes.  No distinction was made between combatants and civilians, women and men, adults and children.  Slaughter was indiscriminate and widespread.

The interest of the US in all of this, for which President Clinton later apologized to the Guatemalan people, is summarized in Wikipedia this way:

Given Ríos Montt’s staunch anticommunism and ties to the United States, the Reagan administration continued to support the general and his regime, paying a visit to Guatemala City in December 1982.   During a meeting with Ríos Montt on December 4, Reagan declared:  “President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. … I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”

Reagan claimed Guatemala’s human rights conditions were improving and overturned the arms embargo imposed on Guatemala by president Carter in 1977, by agreeing, in January 1983, to sell millions of dollars worth of military hardware, including weapons and vehicles, to the country’s government. The decision was taken in spite of records concerning human rights violations, by-passing the approval from Congress.  Meanwhile, a then-secret 1983 CIA cable noted a rise in “suspect right-wing violence” and an increasing number of bodies “appearing in ditches and gullies.”   

Montt is also an evangelical Christian, and very devout.


La politique noir

November 30, 2011

From film noir to la politique noir, and I don’t mean ‘black politics’, as in Black Power.   My reading and viewing have converged at what Philip Pomper, in his biography of Sergei Nechaev, calls, “[the] striking lesson in the disastrous possibilities of revolutionary politics.”  Extreme disturbed personalities, fantastic rhetoric, and violence.  Patty Hearst, Dostoyevsky’s Demons, Ed Begley as a lunatic Texan Cold Warrior, and Nechaev, fact and fiction.  Let’s start with Ms. Hearst.

Patty Hearst, a film from 1988, directed by Paul Schrader, with Natasha Richardson in the lead, is hard to find, but you can get it on DVD.  It doesn’t seem to be an official release, whatever that means, but it is a very fine dramatization of this crazy episode in revolutionary fringe politics.  Schrader is sympathetic to, but not sentimental about Hearst:  a young, sheltered girl who thought she knew a thing or two about the world is kidnapped and kept in a closet for weeks, blindfolded and gagged, treated like a dog, and raped (made a sperm receptacle) by her captors, male, and it seems female as well.  We would all like to think that we would come through this okay, and escape at the first opportunity, rather than imploding and joining the gang, so, as she tells us at the end, her survival, ‘rescue’, and trial were mightily inconvenient for the mass audience following every sordid minute of the tale.

I’ve written about the Symbionese Liberation Front and their rhetoric before, and the film does a great job of dramatizing it.  Ving Rhames (Marsellus in Pulp Fiction) uses that deep voice of his to convey the  incantatory and delusional charisma of Field Marshal Cinque.   The thing is, that as I’m watching it, I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky’s novel, Demons.  After Patty has joined The Cause, and is helping plan a bank job, she asks, “Will the rest of The Army help us with it?”  Everyone chuckles, and Cinque replies, “It’s just us, there is no army.”  Did Pyotr Verkhovensky really have a network of cells communicating with him?  Some characters wondered.  The similarities multiply.

The members of Hearst’s cell are all white, except for their leader, Cinque, and they all have a major case of white radical guilt.  When Hearst complains that she is hungry, they tell her “This is how black people in our country live every day!  You don’t know!”   Every word Cinque utters is considered brilliant.  At one point, a cell member responds to a rather inept and non-sequitur comment with, “Brilliant, that’s brilliant!  Goddamn it , goddamn I wish I was black!”  Later, he is shown in blackface makeup, the usual disguise they use, attempting to strike a streetwise pose.  This corrosive guilt and lack of self-esteem it brings to political thinking was not new in the 60′s:  Nechaev was very successful in exploiting it in his recruitment of middle-class and upper-class Russians of his own time.

It is well-known the Demons draws heavily on the trial record of Sergei Nechaev, who had a brief period of power within the chaotic Russian revolutionary movement.  He was a manipulator, a liar, a thief, and totally – that’s actually an understatement – unprincipled.  When he started his own journal, it was called The People’s Revenge.   He bilked Herzen and his daughter out of thousands, tried to seduce her after the old socialist’s death, played Bakunin like a fiddle, and committed so many frauds – he was always claiming to have legions of followers at his beck and call – that Bakunin’s association with him gave Marx the leverage to get Bakunin kicked out of the International, that pesky, infantile, anarchist!  (In fact, I have discovered, there is a scholarly literature on the Russophobia of Karl Marx.  He thought they, the Russian revolutionaries, were a bit nuts – how’s that for communist irony!)

What I found  surprising regarding Demons, is how closely some parts of the novel are modeled on Nechaev’s life.  The central murder of the book, in fact, conforms almost exactly to the facts of the case – the botched disposal of the corpse in a pond; luring the victim with a story of a buried press; and the almost comic disorganization of the killers.  We must recall, after all, that Dostoyevsky originally was planning a comic burlesque of nihilist politics when he began his story.  The Wise Serpent of Demons, combines many of Nechaev’s personality traits with a cunning and slyness that the real-life figure lacked.  Nechaev moved with clumsy and ill-concealed cynicism towards his goals, eventually disgusting most of those he worked with in the revolutionary underground.  Still, he was committed to the cause, fanatically, so they cut him a lot of slack.

Pomper dissects his life with a lens tinted with psychoanalytic hues, but not intrusively so:  the Oedipal, infantile anti-authoritarian, and perverse sexual mental contortions of his thinking are quite plain in his writings.  One of his favorite propaganda tropes was to depict the orgiastic and revolting sexual activities of the Tsar, the nobles, or of whomever he was attacking.  Obviously, this sort of rhetoric has a long history – often turned against Jews – and it had a grand future, being part of the revolutionary stock in trade right up to 1917.  His language makes use of religious themes as well, particularly martyrdom, for which he planned, and is in this way curiously linked to the imagery of What Is to Be Done?

I originally bought Pomper’s  biography hoping to find more writings of Nechaev’s, but apart from some letters, and excerpts from articles he wrote, and, of course, the full text of his Catechism, there was not much.  I was particularly disappointed by the absence of a translation of his Foundations for a Future Social Order, the document in which he lays out his plans for society after the revolutionary transformation.  From the bits I have read of and about it, it is a grim vision of a militantly regimented society that seems drawn from the history of ancient Sparta and Fourier’s utopian plans.  What particularly upset some (according to Nechaev) were his notions of communal dining.  This led to Marx’s famous contemptuous dismissal of his ideas as “barracks communism.”  In his world, Pechorin would be less than superfluous:  he would be a pest to be exterminated.

Was Nechaev on his mind when Italo Calvino wrote Beheading the Heads?  In this short story, a tourist happens upon a land where the leaders are ritually executed periodically (as were some kings in ancient times, if The Golden Bough is to be believed).  The action then jumps back in time to show us the nihilist cells planning for The Revolution, after which there will be no leaders other than those who agree to die, and so prevent tyranny.  One man questions whether they should not ritually execute the leaders of their cells since that is what they plan for society.  Are they not hypocrites if they do not?  Naturally, there is some hesitation on this point amongst the revolutionary heads.  They hit upon a compromise:  they will ritually mutilate the leaders at suitable intervals, leaving the post-revolutionary society to fully implement their plan.  It concludes with descriptions of revolutionary activity led by men with no fingers, missing ears, sometimes a wooden leg, each vanished appendage a testament to their zeal for the New World Order.

Finally, we have Ken Russell’s film, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), with the always enjoyable Michael Caine.  It’s basically, a mediocre spy film that followed Caine’s work as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File.  The film is enlivened by Karl Malden playing an utter sleaze of an ex-agent gone ‘entrepreneur’  working for ‘General’ Midwinter (Ed Begley), a fanatical anti-communist zillionaire from Texas.  Midwinter is angry at the world, at the government (the password between his men is always, “now is the Winter of our discontent“) and most of all at the commies.  He has a secret plan to use germ warfare against the Russians while his private army of rebels in Latvia begin the dissolution of the Evil Empire.   He mixes Christian fundamentalism with anti-Russian hellfire to work up enthusiasm among his ‘employees’, while his plans are being completely undermined by Malden’s diversion of the mercenaries payroll into his own pocket.  The Russians are onto him too, and they efficiently dispose of his army in an air attack on the frozen Baltic that brings to mind Alexander Nevksy’s victory at Novogorod.  Perhaps it takes a Brit to penetrate to the center of the American Texas phenomenon.  In this case, Russell’s exaggeration was no exaggeration.


Almost Parallel Lives

November 29, 2011

The dates of their lives were very close, but those lives-not by a long shot!  Both had obituaries in the NYTimes today:

Lana Peters, Stalin’s Daughter, Dies at 85

Shown below in a cuddly pose with the great Russian bear, the Red Tsar, and sitting on the lap of Uncle Laventry (Beria), chief of the secret police, later one of its victims, with papa working for the masses in the background.

Ken Russell, Director Fond of Provocation, Dies at 84

He could be flat-out ridiculous, as in his biopic of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, or brilliantly over-the-top in The Devils.  He was not deterred by being a “punching bag” for some critics:   “I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what’s more, I simply go about my business,” … “I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people.”


Angels in America

November 25, 2011

When Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, the Regan era and the full-bore ravages of AIDS in America were not far behind us.  The play, at least as it is (faithfully, I’ve read) adapted in the 2003 HBO mini-series, deals with several emotionally churning themes – love, death, disease, the end of the Cold War, American assimilationism…well, those last two are emotional hot-button issues for some people.  The HBO series was highly praised, and when I watched the first part on a DVD, I was taken with it.  There was drama, there was suspense, there were spectacular sights and portents of great meaning.

There were also fine actors:  Al Pacino was great playing the “pole star of evil,” Roy Cohn, the right-wing hatchet man and all around corrupt operator, who hid is homosexual nature, or as he said, the fact that he “likes to fuck around with guys,” and that he was dying of AIDS.  Meryl Streep does her chameleon thing, playing several roles, but even though I am thoroughly used to that, her portrayal of a ratty orthodox rabbi in the opening knocked me out.  Jeffrey Wright was great as Cohn’s nurse and the friend to all.

But that was not enough.  Part II barely kept my attention, it petered out in a fit of sentimentality; the boy gets boy, boy loses boy plot lines were tedious, and one of the main characters, the guilt-ridden politico-Jew who abandons his AIDS stricken lover, was boring, trite, and basically repellent.  In the end, I felt I’d been had:  What was that mess about anyway?  We should all be nicer to one another?  Without Pacino, I don’t think I could have made it through the show.  Thank you Roy Cohn for a wonderful experience.


Lovin’ that bomb

December 30, 2008

hbomb

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.


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