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


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.

A blast from the past

August 17, 2008

In utrumque paratus…That little bit of Latin means “prepared for either…”  In this case, the either refers to peaceful defense or war.  War, as in World War III, that is.  Nuclear annihilation by intercontinental ballistic missiles, aka ICBM.

We were vacationing up north in the Lake Champlain area of Vermont, riding our bikes through pleasant rural vistas, when we stopped at a visitors’ information site in Alburgh, a very small town.  There was a solid historical marker set on a post that identified the area as the site of the first US ICBM missile silo – set way up north near the border with Canada to minimize the flying time to the USSR.  I left without remembering to take a picture of the marker, but obviously others have had similar thoughts (see here).  I didn’t know there was so much touristical interest in Cold War armageddon.  Just seeing that marker was chilling to me.

Nuclear Blind Pig

January 18, 2008


Thanks to Blind Pig records for the loan of their logo. Much as I like Blues music, it’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about a different kind of blind pig – intellectuals. People like Richard Perle, quoted in Richard Rhodes’ recent book, Arsenals of Folly, as saying, “Getting rid of all the world’s nuclear weapons is the worst thing that could happen.” This was heard by Secy. of State George Schultz during the Regan-Gorby meeting in Iceland near the end of the cold war.

So what planet was Richard Perle living on? Same one he’s still on, I guess. He is the master of “threat inflation” and was instrumental in selling the snake oil that Saddam Hussein was ready to nuke the USA. Obviously, he found Iraq a useful demon after his favorite evil empire went to the dustbin of history. On the run up to the end of the Cold War, he desperately tried to derail Reagan from his path of disarming. [Rhodes’ book has made me feel a grudging smidgen of admiration for Reagonzo, despite his attachment to urban legends, steal-for-the-rich economics, cold war Contra law breaking, and the biggest arms buildup in US history. He felt Gorby wanted to get rid of the nuclear menace, the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), and he took him up on it. His advisers, such as Perle, were mostly against it.]  What sort of twisted thinking motivated Perle’s outrageous statement?

Well, of course, if the nuclear menace went away, so would the need for “experts” on arms control like him.  So would his political club that he had wielded so well with his mentor, Senator Scoop Jackson, liberal shill for the defense industry.  Nevertheless, one must wonder and quail before a mind, supposedly intelligent, that could take nuclear holocaust so in stride. That is, not recoil in absolute horror from the prospect.  The human beings of the world have to be grateful that those political leaders who would actually have had to press the button, did recoil:  Kruschev, JFK, Reagan, Gorby, and others.  There were close calls, but none wanted to get to that point.

Rhodes, no fan of Reagan, relates that he was deeply shaken by the TV movie, The Day AfterMovies, he understood.  Kissinger deplored the effect of the movie, and such popular expressions of anti-nuke horror such as the 1,000,000 strong march in NYC, as introducing irrational fear to the negotiations.  (And he wasn’t nearly as much of a nutcase as Perle.  After all, he was for detente.)  All of them knew, as Perle apparently did not, that it would be a catastrophe, perhaps The End.

This is the state to which some intellectuals bring themselves.

Cold War: Eros and Thanatos

October 29, 2007

Professor Groeteschele holding forth…

Bucky aborting countdown…

The girl who loved death…

Two films that form a strange sort of bookend pair: Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe. Both are excellent, among my favorites, and both were released in 1964 by the same studio, but alas for Fail Safe (Lumet), Strangelove’s Kubrick succeeded in getting his released first, so Fail Safe flopped. Can you believe it – some critics reported that people laughed during the screenings – they thought it was another comedy! That’s how powerful Kubrick’s film was.

There are many odd parallels between the two that any fan will know: Bucky Turgidson and “Blackie.” Strangelove in a wheelchair, the Secy. of Defense on crutches. The pilots who loose sight of the “human factor.” But what I like, is the treatment of sex-death in the two.

Strangelove is, himself, a weird, perverted sex fiend or impotent monster, and Bucky is his masculine opposite. Not too bright, all muscle and action. In the still we have here – must be a studio shot because it’s in color – he’s with the only woman in the entire film, his secretary. He has to break off their tryst to go to the war room, but assures her that he’ll be back before she can say “blast off!” I wonder what Curtis LeMay thought of this role? He is so fixated on his machismo, that he practically roots for the US pilots to get through and destroy Moscow, setting off the Doomsday machine.

Matthau plays Dr.Groeteschele, an amalgam of Herman Kahn and Kissinger, the great minds who were busy thinking the unthinkable. As he holds forth at a party about how nuclear war is winnable, and must be won, Ilsa Wolfe (Nancy Berg), the girl who loves death, looks on adoringly. Her fangs drool for him. She gets him to drive her…not home, just about, giving him directions with a languid, bored tone. She stops his driving, and after he psychoanalyzes her and tells her just how sick she is for getting an erotic thrill out of mass murder by nuclear destruction, she makes her move. Here’s a bit of the dialog:

Ilsa: …you know there won’t be any survivors.

Dr. G: Not many.

-None at all. That’s the beauty of it.

-I’ve heard nuclear war called a lot of things, but never beautiful.

-People are afraid to call it that, but that’s what they feel.

-The beauty of death?

-Don’t patronize me! What else but that are you selling, Professor? We all know we’re going to die…but you make a marvelous game out of it that includes the whole world.You make it seem possible.

– It is possible, even probable.

-You make death an entertainment… something that can be played in a living room…

-I am the joker. I make death into a game for people like you to get excited about. I watched you tonight. You’d love making it possible. You’d love pressing that button. What a thrill that would be. Knowing you have to die…to have the power to take everyone else with you… the mob of them with their plans, their little hopes… born to be murdered and turning away from it…closing their eyes to it. You could be the one to make it true, do it to them. But you’re afraid…so you look for the thrill someplace else. And who better than a man who isn’t afraid?

She wipes her lipstick off with his handkerchief and reaches for him. He slaps her hard, and says, “I’m not your kind!”

Maybe he’s worse. He really is a salesman, a huckster of mass death. The sequence is a marvelous prelude to the film noir, thriller ambience that is the rest of the film, a really taut suspenseful drama about nuclear systems gone haywire. As with Kubrick, Lumet intuits that there is something dark, sick, and intensely human at the core of all this pseudo-intellectual calculation about kill ratios, delivery rates, and fail safe systems. (J. R. Oppenheimer, “Father of the Atomic Bomb” derided it as nonsense, rationalizations for genocide.) This is one of the most perverse and evil scenes I have ever seen in a film, and it is the obverse of Kubrick’s wild, black humor.

Does anyone remember the Cold War these days? Those happy times, wondering if the end of the world was truly around the corner, not just the gleam in a fundamentalist’s eye? Thinking of moving to “non-target countries.” The reassuring logic of MAD, mutually assured destruction? Today, we have terrorism, but I don’t recall people being nearly so scared of nuclear war. Perhaps it was because our leaders and our intellectuals, some of them, told us it was what we had to do.